OCEAN SPRINGS, MS (WLOX) - Mississippi is the only state in the country without high school sanctioned wrestling but one Coast school is trying to change that.
WLOX Reporter Tristan Ruppert once wrestled as an Ocean Springs Greyhound but his time with the team was anything but easy. Ruppert didn’t know if each year he wrestled would be the last year for the program. That was five years ago and the team is still fighting to keep wrestling alive in Mississippi.
“Getting your hand raised on the mat is the greatest feeling because you know you’ve worked hard to get to that position and you came out on top," said wrestler Bryce Bizzack.
Yet, kids in the state of Mississippi have largely gone without that feeling. Mississippi remains the only state in the country without high school sanctioned wrestling. A fact that isn’t unknown in the wrestling community as Olympic champion Jordan Burroughs reminded everyone on Twitter in 2015.
Burroughs was only partially correct, though. Wrestling is present in Mississippi but it’s far from statewide. In fact, there is only one high school in the state with a team: the Ocean Springs Greyhounds.
The program has been fighting since it first began. At first, the fight was about bringing eyes and attention to the support but it soon became much more when scandal struck in 2011. The head coach at the time and the man who really started the program, Grady Brown, was arrested for sex charges with a minor.
The program, which had been building momentum, was then forced to try and pick up the pieces. Questions had to be asked. What went wrong? Should the program remain? Who will be the new coach? Overall, the program survived, held together by parents whose children had fallen in love with the sport.
Over the years, both Bryant Shaw and Brian Holliman stepped up as head coach of the Greyhounds. After Holliman’s departure from the program, Jay Snow took the title of head coach. Snow isn’t paid one cent for his role. He volunteers his time and energy simply because he loves the sport.
Although exhausting, every now and again, a moment occurs that makes it all worth it in his eyes. This is exactly what happened when Xavier Smith won his first wrestling match this year.
“All my teammates were cheering for me because they have been through all that hard work with me," said Smith, who is in the seventh grade. “And to get my first win really felt good.”
The noise was deafening as his teammates screamed their support. The referee finally slapped the mat.
Smith won his first match in front of his family and friends at the Greyhound’s only home meet of the season. He beat a kid from Alabama that was two years older than him and had twice the experience as him.
“You know, those moments can have a profound effect on kids,” said coach Jay Snow as he reflected on the moment.
After the win, his teammates swarmed the young student, heaping him with praise. Smith was beaming as he realized all his hard work had finally paid off. It’s moments like this that encourage Coach Snow and the Ocean Springs Wrestling team to continue to roll out the mats each winter so 20 athletes can compete in the sport they love.
“It takes dedication. It takes real dedication," said wrestler Andrew Hughes. "You have to be committed to this sport.”
The Greyhounds are spirited but they’re also unique. Even after a decade-long fight, they are still Mississippi’s only high school wrestling team, which makes finding competition extremely difficult.
Unfortunately, unique has its pitfalls, such as the opponent never showing up, which was recently the case, despite the coach’s efforts to confirm the match with the other team’s coach.
“When somebody says good to go, you assume they are good to go,” Coach Snow explained.
Coach Snow made sure the Greyhounds wrestled anyway, staging a meet between the teammates.
“Sorry that this happened. Sometimes in life, this stuff happens. It is okay. We’re going to make the best of it,” he said to his team.
That’s just part of what they’ve endured since starting this program a decade ago.
“At one point in time, they were going to cut the program," said the coach. “We went in front of the school board and we had 20 wrestlers there, and they were really supportive.”
Ocean Springs athletics director Mark Hubbard remembers that meeting.
“I just recall the passion that the student athletes had for wrestling, and they got up and just kind of spoke their hearts on what wrestling means to them." said Hubbard. “I think that made a huge impact on our decision to keep it.”
While Ocean Springs wanted to keep the program, they also had to trim the budget. To assure they would still be around for years to come, the wrestling team offered to go budget-neutral. So every dollar they spend, they raise through fundraising or donations. That makes it even harder and even more impressive considering every match they compete in not local.
“It is very frustrating to have to travel to Florida, Alabama, Louisiana on a weekly basis to do that," said booster club member Ryan Barr. “It costs more money to do that.”
Those same costs nearly ended the Greyhound wrestling program.
“Every year, I am waiting for them to say ‘Coach, we had a good run but it is time to call it quits’,” said Coach Snow.
But, Coach Snow won’t let that happen.
His long-term goal is to bring wrestling to the rest of the state.
“We’re not going anywhere, and so, these other schools need to get with the program and get a program,” he said.
Which is something the entire team wants.
“Knowing that there are other people who would really like to do this in Mississippi... I think that more schools should have it, and I would be there to support any other school that would want to do it in the future,” said wrestler Daniel Wescovich.
To follow the Ocean Springs wrestling team, visit their Facebook page HERE.