Story and photos by Larry Isch
It’s early August on the University of the Ozarks campus and first-year men’s wrestling coach Jason Zastrow’s small, freshly-painted office in Mabee Gymnasium is lined with stacks of opened and unopened boxes of all shapes and sizes. The boxes contain the essential items and equipment for a wrestling program — singlets, warmup jackets, head gear and mat tape. As Zastrow talks with a visitor, a delivery driver knocks on his office door with the latest treasure: an 18-wheeler full of wall mats.
“Every morning I come to work, it’s like Christmas,” said Zastrow. “You can’t help but get excited when you see this stuff come in. That’s when you know this thing is for real.”
When officials at the Clarksville university decided last spring to add men’s wrestling to its athletic program, it became the sixth collegiate wrestling program in Arkansas, but the first in the River Valley, and the first one west of Conway.
“As we were looking at options for adding new sports, we wanted a sport that was growing in popularity, that we could recruit for, and that we had the facilities for,” said Ozarks Athletic Director Jimmy Clark. “Wrestling fit all those criteria. It’s about giving our student-athletes another opportunity to compete.”
The 31-year-old Zastrow was hired by Ozarks in May, bringing with him an impressive pedigree. A native of Coon Rapids, Minn., Zastrow has been wrestling since he was six. He is a former collegiate wrestler and assistant coach at the most dominant NCAA Division III men’s wrestling program in the country, 11-time national champion Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa. Zastrow and his wife, Jenny, had recently moved to Northwest Arkansas where her job working with Wal-Mart had taken them. Zastrow spent the past year serving as a volunteer coach for Springdale Har-Ber High School.
“I feel like this is what I’ve been working toward and preparing for my entire life,” Zastrow said. “It’s an amazing opportunity to start something from scratch and to have input in every aspect of the program. That’s what I tell the young men that I’m recruiting: How often do you have an opportunity to be a part of starting something special, the first? I’m ready for the challenge and I want young men who want that challenge.”
One of the first hurdles for starting the program was securing a facility. University officials did that by converting a 4,090-square-foot area in Mabee Gymnasium that once held an indoor swimming pool into a facility that the wrestling program will share with a new competitive cheer/STUNT program. Next came a coach’s office, wall-to-wall matting, enhanced lighting and new locker-rooms.
Little Rock businessman Greg Hatcher, a former Division III wrestler and avid supporter of wrestling in Arkansas, was instrumental in helping Ozarks get its program started. He helped defer the hefty cost of starting a new program by purchasing such things as floor and wall mats for the university. Hatcher, who is president of the Arkansas Wrestling Association, also helped get the wrestling programs started at Ouachita Baptist University, Lyon College, Williams Baptist College, Central Baptist College and Arkansas Baptist University,
“Greg is someone who is very passionate about wrestling and wants to see it grow in Arkansas,” said Clark. “With his help, we were able to eliminate some of the hurdles of starting a new program, like the cost of basic facility equipment. With his help we were able to move pretty quickly.”
Clark, who is also the university’s head baseball coach, has found himself gaining a crash-course lesson in the intricacies of wrestling.
“I’d be in the hotel room after a road baseball game and I’d have collegiate wrestling on the TV,” Clark said. “I found myself learning a lot about wrestling and really getting into the sport. It’s very physical, yet technical as well. I still have a lot to learn, but from what I’ve seen I think it will be an exciting addition for the athletic program and the University.”
The university’s athletic program competes in the NCAA Division III American Southwest Conference (ASC), made up of schools from Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi. Since wrestling is not an ASC sport, the Eagles will compete as an independent and, most likely, be placed in the powerhouse Iowa regional, made up of tradition-rich D-III programs in Iowa and Illinois. With the next closest DIII wrestling programs a daunting eight-hour road trip away — Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Ala., and Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa — Zastrow has had to get creative with his scheduling. The first-year schedule includes about 12 dates, many of them dual meets, and all of the matches on the road. As well as D-III programs, he has scheduled matches with D-I, D-II, NAIA and even club programs.
The wrestling season typically runs from mid-October to mid-March. There are 10 different weight classes, ranging from 125 pounds to 285-plus. Zastrow said a full squad has up to 40 wrestlers, but he expects to have about five when the inaugural season rolls around in less than two months.
“From scheduling to roster size, this first year is not going to be ideal, but we’re going to make the most of it and work on building the program the right way,” Zastrow said. “I’ve talked to other coaches at colleges that have started wrestling in recent years and one of things they say is to not be in a big rush and to build the program the right way. We want to build one block at a time. I want to see growth in the program each day. We want to build a program that the university, the athletic program and the wrestling community can be proud of.”
One long-time River Valley wrestling enthusiast is already proud of the Ozarks program. Adrian Meredith is entering his second season as head coach of the Russellville High School wrestling program. As a former volunteer assistant coach, Meredith helped establish the program at RHS in 1999 and has seen the sport’s interest grow from about 12 high school wrestlers “on a good day,” to 24 last year.>>
“I think that it’s great that the university’s administration had the insight and courage to add wrestling,” said Meredith, a former Florida high school and community college wrestler. “It’s been amazing to watch the sport grow in Arkansas and in this area since 1999. And now to have a college program in the River Valley is tremendous. Now there’s a program 20 miles down the road that our kids can see and watch and aspire to compete at on the next level. There are not a lot of wrestling options on the next level for our kids, and now’s there is one right here in our backyard. I’m ecstatic.”
Zastrow believes that with a recruiting base of Arkansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Texas and Louisiana, there is plenty of high school wrestling talent to pull from.
“There are about 60 high schools in Arkansas that have wrestling programs, and I think that number is going to continue to grow,” Zastrow said. “Arkansas doesn’t have the depth that a lot of other states have, but the top talent is very good. Then you have states like Oklahoma, Missouri and Texas where the sport has a little more tradition, but there aren’t a lot of colleges that offer wrestling. There is only one college in the entire state of Texas that offers collegiate wrestling and there are no other D-III schools in Arkansas, Missouri or Louisiana that offer wrestling. We feel like we can have some recruiting advantages in those areas.”
One thing that Zastrow is sure of is the type of student-athletes he wants in his program.
“I want kids who are willing to put in the hard work and sacrifice that it takes to be a successful collegiate wrestler,” he said. “A true commitment to hard work is the difference between an average wrestler and a very good wrestler. I also want kids who are a good fit for the university; who are going to take advantage of a top-notch education and be model student-athletes. It’s usually easy to motivate young men to wrestle, but you want to make sure they are making good choices in school and in their personal lives.”
The experience of being a student-athlete, and not necessarily the wins and losses, is what will stick with the young men long after they leave college, Zastrow said.
“Me and my friends don’t remember much about the wins and losses from our college wrestling days, but we do remember the bad motels we stayed in or particular road trips,” Zastrow said. “Now, I definitely want to win, but in 20 or 30 years, what these student-athletes will remember most is the camaraderie and friendships that they shared.”
With the University’s inaugural wrestling season fast approaching, Zastrow has had a few sleepless nights as his mind runs through a seemingly endless inventory of items and equipment needed to start a sports program from the ground up.
“I popped up at 3 o’clock in the morning the other night and realized that I hadn’t ordered mat tape,” he said. “That’s one of the most basics things you need to have, and I hadn’t thought of it. It seems like every day I’m thinking of something that I need to do to get ready for the season. I’m having to think about those small, daily things that you just take for granted at an established program. It’s kind of stressful, but also fun.”