Chris Henderson could still feel the magic more than 20 years after Sexton’s wrestling program was in the thick of its prosperity.
The program won four state championships between 1948-60, and finished as state runners-up nine times between 1949-69. Across the 1960 and mid-1980s, Sexton produced 11 individual state champions. That history, Henderson says, helped propel Sexton to the Class A state championship in 1987, the same year the 1989 graduate won the first of his three individual titles.
“Back in the 80s, I can recall guys from the 60s coming up and practicing with us and talking to us about what they’ve established and what we’re carrying on,” Henderson said. “That was kind of special. I think we were conscious as a team, and as high school kids, how important that was. But, at the same time, we didn’t really let it put a lot of pressure on us.
“We just worked so hard in practice back in the 80s with our partners. We just beat each other up in the room, and let our practice reveal itself out on the mat.”
Henderson, now in his 19th season as Sexton’s coach, has been around long enough now to see the magic vanish. The program that once held about 90 kids in the 1980s has hovered around 20 for much of the past decade. The pool of kids to chose from has diminished due to schools of choice and job loss in the city. The middle school program was cut about 15 years ago, although it was brought back years later in a smaller capacity.
The downsizing of General Motors hit hard, said Jeff Howard, a longtime assistant coach with Henderson and a 1994 graduate of Sexton. “We were a Class A school, we had more talent to pick from. When you take a whole community of people out of a city … you started to see the numbers drop.”
Henderson, however, is hoping to see a resurgence in the program.
The Big Reds finished the regular season with a 12-5 record, their best in at least a decade. They had 11 of their 14 weight classes place at last week’s CAAC Blue meet. Sexton was 2-19 just seven seasons ago.
The program is looking to take baby steps — with consistency being the first order of operations. The Big Reds have an opportunity to show that they’ve turned the corner when they host Thursday’s Division 3 team district tournament.
“We’re a work in progress,” Henderson said. “That’s what I talk to the kids about. The success is coming now, and it’s coming later.
“Last year, I was pretty low key. It was a good season, and part of it was because I didn’t have a lot of expectation. I just thought, ‘Wow, this was a great season — 11-11.’ This year, my expectations, and theirs, are a little bit higher. So I grind on them, push them a little bit more.”
For decades, the Capital City Wrestling Club, a longtime feeder program, has operated out of Sexton High School. It’s housed and trained nearly 40 wrestlers each year, very few of which end up attending Lansing high schools.
Henderson, who also acts as the school’s athletic director, said there were about 2,000 kids walking the halls of Sexton during his time as a student. Now, there’s about 600 kids.
“Unfortunately, just the trend and where we are … (the kids) end up going to different schools,” he said.
The revitalized middle school program has been a blessing in disguise for the Big Reds. The upperclassmen on Henderson’s current 25-man roster, his biggest in years, are the first to go through since the program’s return.
“It’s a small six-week season, we’re looking to expand that a little and get a few more middle schools (involved),” Henderson said. “This group of wrestlers, mostly the junior and seniors were the first group to go through it. Having those two years under their belt (has been huge).”
Henderson said this group has been one of his best in a decade. There has been a year-long commitment. The enthusiasm is visible outside of the season.
Hamadi Lugendo, who wrestles at 112 pounds, is ranked eighth in the state, according to michigangrappler.com, and is the Big Reds’ first ranked wrestler in quite some time. The team won a tournament at Stockbridge earlier this season.
Four-year wrestler Issiah Duncan hasn’t experienced this type of success before.
“Because we’ve been winning so much, it’s made us want to practice harder, and it’s given us a drive to accomplish something more than just wrestling as a sport,” Duncan said.
Henderson believes this season could be the turning point.
The program is starting to feel special again. Former wrestlers are coming back to help the new generation, and everyone wants to bring back the lore to Sexton wrestling.
“We definitely want to build consistency and get back to where we were,” Howard said. “Ultimately, it’s up to the kids. We have a great group of kids, and whenever you have that, it makes it possible.
“Hopefully, they can carry on the tradition for others to come after them. Like those guys did for us.”
Contact James L. Edwards III at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JLEdwardsIII.
What: Division 3 team district tournament
Who: Sexton, Williamston and Portland
When: Thursday, Feb. 9 (5:30 p.m.)
Where: Sexton High School
Price: $5 at the door