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Blake Williams returns to lead Solon wrestling

Blake Williams returns to the Solon varsity wrestling program as head coach after 12 years leading the Cedar Rapids Prairie Hawks. Nearly all of Williams’ staff wrestled for him during their high school careers at Solon. (Photo by Chris Umscheid)

SOLON– He’s the “new, but the old” coach.
Blake Williams, who coached the Solon Spartan varsity wrestling program from 1999 to 2003, is back as the head coach, replacing T.J. Bevans. Williams returns to the Spartan wrestling room after leading the Prairie Hawks of Cedar Rapids Prairie for 12 years. For Williams it was a difficult, but ultimately easy, decision to make.
“It went really well (at Prairie),” said Williams. “I had everything I could ask for, at that time.”
His Prairie Hawks appeared in the state dual meet nine out of 12 years, with consistent top-five finishes at state and a lot of individual qualifiers.
Williams learned of an opportunity to return to Solon as the middle school physical education teacher, replacing Brad Randall, who retired last spring. Williams’ wife, Emy, teaches third grade and coaches varsity cross country, and they have two children who attend Solon schools.
“It really was appealing to me to come back, obviously for family reasons, but also because I know it’s such a great school district academically, athletically… everything,” said Williams.
“It was definitely one of the toughest decisions I’ve ever had to make, and probably the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do was tell my wrestlers back in April when I accepted (the Solon position). But, I told myself that if I make that decision, I’m looking ahead and not looking back,” he said.
The Prairie Hawks are in good hands, Williams said, “So I’m sure they’ll keep going, there’s no doubt about that.”
During his first tenure, the Spartans made their first and, to his knowledge, only appearance in the Iowa High School Athletic Association State Dual Team Meet while also sending several wrestlers to the state individual meet.
“Since then, the torch has passed and credit goes to Coach Bevans; he’s the one who’s been here throughout all these years. He was one that I coached along with a couple of my other assistants,” said Williams.
Bevans was an assistant in Solon for many of the 12 years Williams was at Prairie and took over last season as head coach.
“He was the one main rock of the program, because they had gone through maybe four different head coaches during that time,” said Williams. With so much turnover, it’s hard to build and maintain consistency, he noted. “But he sure helped that, and he’s done a really nice job with the program.”
Williams said credit goes to the other coaches as well, but emphasized Bevans’ efforts in keeping things together throughout the changes. “Consistency is important– not just in wrestling, but in any program,” he said.
Williams approached Bevans to ask if there were any openings on his staff, and was told there was only one spot open, the top spot.
“I told him there’s only one spot, and that’s as head coach, and I will be honored to be your assistant,” Bevans said in a press release put out by the Solon Community School District.
“It shows a lot about what he’s (Bevans) all about. He’s all about the program, he’s all about the kids and what’s best for the program and the kids,” Williams said.
Williams called the new coaching lineup a good mix, which includes Bevans, Aaron Hadenfeldt and Jake Munson, along with other former Solon wrestlers Andy Gnida, Jason Roethler and Matt Kidwell, another of Williams’ wrestlers. He said it helps that his assistants know his philosophy, system and expectations, and how to implement them. “We’re on the same page,” he said.
Having alumni return to Solon isn’t unique to the wrestling program; throughout the Spartan athletic, teaching and administrative ranks, former graduates are in abundance. Williams said he thinks that speaks to Solon being an exceptional place.
“They know it’s a special place. It’s amazing, the quality of coaching that we have here, across the board. To get those top-level coaches and get a lot of alumni to be assistants and so forth… they’ve been through it, they know what it is, and in most cases, they’ve probably had a lot of success in their athletics,” Williams said. He surmised each wants to give back to his or her sport, the school and the community.
“It’s a good staff and we’re just looking forward to getting in there and competing. We’ve had a good first two weeks of practice, the kids have been working hard and doing what we ask of them and I think everybody is just anxious to get the ball rolling and start competing.”
The season opens on Thursday, Dec. 3, with the Williamsburg Raiders rolling into the Spartan gym with the first match set to go off at 6 p.m.
Williams said the Spartans return a good core after losing several talented seniors. His squad isn’t as deep as he might wish, but Williams is encouraged by what he’s seen so far.
“It’s a matter of spreading them out and making sure we can get somebody at each weight class who’s competitive,” said Williams.
He also wants to build the program through developmental work in the earlier grades. “We’ve got a couple of wrestling coaches in the middle school where we can be encouraging kids. Our middle school wrestling numbers are higher than they’ve ever been, and I hope that’s a direct correlation to having coaches in the school.”
Ideally, the wrestling program begins even before middle school, Williams said, “We have a very good youth program that’s only gotten better the last few years. Without a good feeder program, your high school program is not going to be successful. It starts there, it continues in the middle school, and hopefully by the time they get to high school, they’re excited about it and they know wrestling.”
While Solon’s wrestling program has seen many successes over the years, the team hasn’t secured a state championship yet.
“I think it can happen here, there’s no doubt about it that it can happen,” he said. “It’s a process and it’s going to take some time, but there’s no reason why it can’t happen here.”
But success isn’t just about a win-loss record, names on the wall in the wrestling room or even trophies in the case, Williams said.
“It’s always a goal that you want to do well at the state level and win a championship, but I almost take more satisfaction in helping to mold these kids into young adults… and if they can take things they’ve learned in the wrestling room and carry it over to being an adult and they’re on a job or whatever they’re doing, it’s pretty special.”
And wrestling isn’t for everybody.
“It takes a special kind of person. You may not succeed, but that one-on-one competition teaches him a lot: how to win, how to lose, how to be a good sport, how to overcome fears, how to overcome doubts… those are life lessons,” Williams added.
Hard work and discipline, as in other sports, are emphasized in wrestling, and Williams said that transfers to all aspects of life.
“Wrestling is one sport where that carries over to your school work, when you get out of school… your work, whatever you do,” he said. “In my opinion, it’s going to make everything easier. No doubt about it.”