Hornets win on the mat, in court of opinion

By Donna Stephens Originally Published March 24, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated March 22, 2013 at 9:45 a.m.
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Maumelle’s Justin Butler, left, and Little Rock Christian Academy’s Josh Hurlbut compete in last year’s finals of the 1A-5A State High School Championship 138 weight class wrestling match at the Jack Stephens Center in Little Rock. Maumelle won the first team state championship in school history this year.

Maumelle won the first team state championship in school history and had four individual state champions, 12 medalists among 14 weight classes and 10 athletes make all-state recently at the Arkansas High School State Wrestling Tournament.

But coach Ed Viera said none of those accolades could top something else that happened.

“All of that was nice, but the one thing I’ll take from that tournament more than anything else is the fact that I had dozens of parents of wrestlers from other schools tell me how impressed they were with our team’s conduct and sportsmanship — all the things that are important to me,” he said.

“They didn’t have to tell us that, especially when their kids go to other schools. The mayor gave us the key to the city, some local legislators want to get a proclamation from the governor, but those compliments from those other parents were the greatest thing I could’ve received.”

At Maumelle High School, wrestling is about more than just success on the mat, although there has been plenty of that.

Viera calls himself the disciplinarian among the Hornets’ three volunteer coaches. Tony Brainerd and Blake Butler are valued assistants.

“We expect them to act better than anybody else,” Viera said of his athletes. “All those other intangibles that make not just a good wrestling program but good people and good assets to whatever community they’re in — that’s my big deal.

“If you get that, you’ll automatically become a better wrestler because of the work ethic that I try to instill into all the wrestlers and how they conduct themselves.”

Maumelle won the Class 1A-5A state title with 288.5 points. Beebe finished as runner-up with 195.5, and Central Arkansas Christian was third at 192. The rest of the top six included Little Rock Christian, 156.5; Bismarck, 117; and Greenbrier, 114.5.

Justin Butler won his second straight state championship in the 138-pound weight classification. He finished his junior season 31-1.

“It’s pretty awesome, a great experience,” Butler said. “Everybody focused real hard and worked real hard for the season. Our goal all year was to be state champs.”

He said the team title on top of his individual crown made this year’s experience even better than last year’s.

“It’s pretty great,” he said. “It really makes you feel like you’re on top of the competition.”

Other Hornets winning individual state titles included Daniel Viera, a junior, at 152 (to finish 33-7); Keith McVay, another junior, at 160 (33-7); and Malik Singleton, a sophomore, at 195 (22-4).

Other Maumelle medalists included junior Willie Wright, runner-up in 145; sophomore Andrew Menchaca, third in 106; junior Adam Nevarez, third in 113; junior Cole Brainerd, third in 120; sophomore Taylor Humphrey, third in 126; junior Keon Quince, third in 285; junior Brendan Rancifer, fourth in 132; and junior Gabe Crumley, fourth in 170.

The top three finishers in each weight classification earned all-state honors.

“Ten all-staters — that’s unheard of,” Viera said.

The Hornets medaled — had a top-six finish — in every weight classification except 182 and 220.

Viera arrived at what was then Pulaski Oak Grove High School in 2008 as an assistant football coach who was assigned wrestling as double duty. He also teaches history.

“Wrestling had sort of died out,” he said. “I had a group of kids who when it started to get really tough, they all quit. So my second year, I recruited from my ninth-grade classes, honors and pre-AP students. I pulled those kids because I knew they had a better work ethic and their parents were more goal-oriented. It wasn’t about participating but excelling.”

That year — Oak Grove’s final year of existence before the school moved to Maumelle — the Hornets beat North Little Rock during a match.

“We started to turn the corner. It was the first time Oak Grove had beaten North Little Rock in anything in recorded history,” Viera said. “The kids said, ‘Wow, we made the front page of the paper.’ We ended up going to the state tournament with all those freshmen and finished seventh.

That group of freshmen is this season’s junior class.

“I saw the potential that was there. At the final Oak Grove sports banquet, I made the statement that my goal was, the first state championship at Maumelle would be in wrestling.”

Two years later, it was.

Maumelle finished runner-up to Little Rock Christian last year. Three Hornets won individual state titles — Butler, Brainerd and James McClendon, the team’s only senior.

“We were real solid,” Viera said. “We had a lot of kids who competed really well last year, and we returned everyone except at 220. But we had some people leave, and the heavyweight who finished second decided he wasn’t going to wrestle.

“So we had these little holes we needed to fill, and the reality was, we filled them rather well.”

One of the team’s strengths, he said, was its conditioning.

“You could see in the third period [of matches], other kids were dying, and ours were ready to go,” Viera said. “Our practice is so difficult every day.”

Viera, 52, moved to Arkansas in 2001 after years of teaching and coaching in Florida. His arrival preceded the explosive growth of high school wrestling here. When he got the job at Oak Grove, wrestling was part of the offer.

“I told them I didn’t know if I was physically capable of rolling around the mat and teaching, but luckily, we’ve got Tony Brainerd and Blake Butler,” he said. “They do all the technique stuff, and I do the paperwork. Each of us brings an expertise to the program the kids have really bought into. I really do appreciate the time and effort they put in.

“The joke is, I’m the only volunteer head coach in the state who is a school employee.”

With no seniors in the starting lineup this season, Maumelle looks to be a force in Arkansas wrestling again next year.

The powerhouse?

“I don’t know if we can call ourselves that, but we would be the front-runners to repeat as state champions next year,” he said.

And the preparation starts now. Some Hornets will work out in preparation for the club-affiliated freestyle state meet in May, a qualifier for the USA Wrestling nationals.

“We’ll keep practicing over the summer and keep doing the things we need to do to get better, then competing against other schools,” Viera said. “We’ll try to do as many tournaments as we can and keep working to get better.

“I don’t see a whole lot of our kids having the ability to wrestle in college because they’ll be competing against kids who’ve been wrestling since they were 5. On our team, only two started wrestling before high school.

“In Arkansas, we’re 100 years behind. We’re catching up quickly, but we’re still behind.”

So instead of focusing on preparing college wrestlers, he’s focused on preparing good citizens.

Ultimately, that is more important.

“I view wrestling more as the life skills that wrestling teaches, the work ethic,” Viera said. “Forbes magazine ran a great article that said the best employees coming out of high school athletics are wrestlers.

“We’re hoping that Maumelle does become the wrestling powerhouse of central Arkansas because there’s five or six [youth] state champions who live in Maumelle in elementary or middle school, so the future is there. We have to continue to improve our program so they come to us instead of going to private schools. And that’s a task.”

But not an impossible one.

Viera delighted in telling the story of the Hornets’ experience at a Bentonville tournament in January.

“As we’re leaving, I remind them that we have to have a criminal mentality, meaning we don’t leave any evidence, so we clean up so well that nobody knows we were there,” he said. “I take garbage bags with us, and we clean up.

“As we’re walking out, a lady asked, ‘Where is Maumelle?’ We said, ‘Little Rock,’ and she said, ‘Those kids are from Little Rock?’ You know what she was thinking. All they hear in northwest Arkansas is, ‘Those Little Rock kids, this and that.’

“It’s not all like that.”

None Donna Stephens can be reached at .

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