Scenes from inside Wells Fargo Arena during the 2019 Des Moines Register Sports Awards with NFL Hall of Famer Kurt Warner. The Des Moines Register
When it comes to wrestling, Eric Whitcome has always taken the big-picture approach.
The eight-year head coach at Waverly-Shell Rock wants to see the sport flourish, so as to add to already-rich history here in Iowa. He wants to see it grow, to be on the same level as mainstream mainstays football and basketball.
In the offseasons, Whitcome volunteers his time in the form of officiating tournaments and inviting those from outside the Waverly-Shell Rock community to come practice with his team. During the 2018-19 season, he led his wrestlers to the Class 3A traditional state championship while also helping push forward the state’s girls’ wrestling movement.
“A lot of times, successful coaches take a lot of heat for only caring about their kids or their programs,” said Brett Wheelan, an assistant coach at Waverly-Shell Rock. “But Whitcome, his view is statewide. He’s just driven and passionate about the sport.
“It’s not about him. Never has been. It’s about the kids and the sport. He wants to make wrestling better in Iowa.”
Whitcome’s efforts have resulted in praise from his peers (he was voted the 2014 Coach of the Year by the Iowa Wrestling Coaches and Officials Association), and in hardware for his teams (he led the Go-Hawks to state titles at both the boys’ and girls’ state tournaments this year).
Now, he can add to his growing list of accolades.
Whitcome has been named the 2018-19 All-Iowa Coach of the Year. The award was voted on by staff members of the Des Moines Register and the Iowa City Press-Citizen. The other finalists were Des Moines Hoover softball coach Melissa Feuerbach and North Linn boys’ basketball coach Mike Hilmer.
Back in February, Whitcome stood on the floor of Wells Fargo Arena, taking in the sights and sounds of a championship. His wrestlers donned hats and smiles and posed for pictures. Everybody at one point or another held the first-place trophy. He couldn’t stop smiling.
“Our program is at the top,” he said then. “We’re doing the things to be successful at the highest levels.”
He was discussing Waverly-Shell Rock’s Class 3A state team title on this night, the school’s first since winning four straight from 2008-11. He could have just as easily been talking about the state championship the Go-Hawk girls’ wrestling team won a month earlier.
‘We want to be ahead of the curve’
Last spring, Whitcome surveyed every girl at Waverly-Shell Rock, inquiring about girls’ wrestling. The result was an 11-girl team for the 2018-19 season, complete with uniforms, practice times and a schedule that spanned two months.
“Talking as a staff, we kind of got tired of people saying things, so we decided to actually do something,” Wheelan said. “It’s real easy to tweet, but it’s not real easy to get off your butt and do the work. Eric led the charge.
“He wanted to get ahead of it. We wanted to be out front, not just with women’s wrestling, but with everything wrestling, because it means that much to our community.”
Girls’ wrestling is one of the country’s fastest-growing high school sports. National participation has increased from 5,527 in 2007-08 to 16,562 in 2017-18, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. Here in Iowa, only 40 girls wrestled in 2013-14, while 198 were registered to compete this past season, according to records kept by Trackwrestling.
As of this month, 18 states have added girls’ wrestling as an official sport. Even more, the NCAA’s Committee on Women’s Athletics recently recommended Emerging Sports Status for “all three Divisions of the NCAA governance structure [to] add women’s wrestling as an NCAA emerging sport, effective August 1, 2020.”
Iowa is home to three collegiate women’s wrestling programs — Waldorf, Grand View and, more recently, Iowa Wesleyan. The movement at the high school level has gained support, but has been slow to take off.
So Whitcome decided to take matters into his own hands.
“We want to be ahead of the curve,” he told the Register earlier this year. “Waverly-Shell Rock, in the last 15-20 years, is one of the best in Iowa high school wrestling. When girls’ wrestling comes, we want to be leading the way.
“We can send emails and attend meetings and push for it, but in reality, if we spend that time going into our own schools and recruiting girls, the numbers will become so big that it’ll be something the (Iowa Girls’ High School Athletic Union) won’t be able to deny.”
To help bolster the cause, Whitcome talked with the IWCOA to create a girls’ state wrestling tournament. Waverly-Shell Rock hosted in late January, and the Go-Hawks won the team title thanks to eight medalists, five finalists, and two state champs. They scored 144 points, almost double the second-place team (Colfax-Mingo, 78).
“He put in a lot of time to make two teams really great,” said Jacey Meier, a senior and girls’ state runner-up at 120 pounds. “He made sure we were getting what we needed and that we learned what we needed to learn.
“I’ve heard from other girls that didn’t go out this year that want to go out next year. A lot of them were amazed at how big it ended up becoming.”
‘Show yourself how good you can be’
In February, the boys’ team blitzed the field and won the 3A state team title in Des Moines, totaling 157 points to beat out perennial power Southeast Polk (123). But the seeds for that championship were planted back in 2014.
Back then, this year's seniors were only eighth graders. Whitcome invited them to come work out with the high school team one day in November. He was so impressed that he emailed them all the next morning.
“If your group of (junior high) wrestlers stick together and make a commitment to continuing to get better,” Whitcome wrote, “not only will you all have a chance to do great things in high school, but you guys can help contribute to a state championship team.
“I have been saying it for a while now about this group, and with the help of classes above and below you, this is a reality.”
It became a reality this winter. Waverly-Shell Rock turned in one of the finest seasons in school history.
The Go-Hawks won the Battle of Waterloo and finished second at The Clash, a nationally renowned, dual-style tournament. They took second at state duals, then rolled up a tournament high 15 pins and put nine on the podium — including five seniors who received that 2014 email — to win the traditional title.
During one of his pre-practice speeches ahead of the state tournament, Whitcome recalled the 1980 Olympics, when the United States’ men’s hockey team beat the Soviet Union. He likened it to wrestling, and how his guys needed to simply out-hustle and outwork everybody.
“He always told us that it was more about whether they were going to beat us, not if we could beat them,” said senior Andrew Snyder, a 2019 heavyweight state champ. “That was our mindset all year — show yourself how good you can be.
“One thing you can always expect from Eric Whitcome is that he’s going to pour his entire heart into whatever he’s doing. Everything you’re willing to put in, he’s going to put in the same amount, or more, to make sure you can achieve your goals.”
This year’s accomplishments will be memorialized inside the high school. Pictures of Waverly-Shell Rock’s state finalists are hung outside the wrestling room. Every other medalist's name is added to a growing list on the inside walls.
But Whitcome took it a step further after this past season. He fundraised so that the five finalists from the girls’ state tournament will also get their pictures on the wall.
What’s more, he’s continued to raise money in the hopes of renovating an old weight room into a second wrestling room so the girls and boys can practice simultaneously.
That might be the best example of Eric Whitcome’s big-picture approach. It’s not about him. Never has been.
It’s about the kids and the sport.
It’s about making wrestling better in Iowa.
Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.