By Jeff Chaney
Special for Second Half
Jay Thrush admitted once he bought the new shoes, he knew he was back.
Thrush was a promising wrestler at Farwell High School three years ago, finishing in eighth place as a 171-pound freshman at the 2016 Division 4 Individual Finals. He followed that up with another Finals trip as a sophomore, falling just short of the podium in 2017.
That momentum was stopped last year when the Farwell athletic administration had to cancel the season because of a lack of participation.
"My freshman year six of us went to state and three of us placed, and I thought that was going to help build the program – but it didn't," Thrush said. "I thought people were going to join, but no one did. Wrestling is a hard sport, and it is hard to convince people to go out."
Then a new coach showed up.
Marcus Wilkes, a former Farwell wrestler, was asked to come back to his former school by Farwell baseball coach Josh Higgins to try and get the wrestling program back up and running.
"The last few years I was a manager at Walmart in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and I was sick of working 100 hours a week and I just got married," Wilkes said. "So I ended up quitting and going back to school. Now I go to Ferris and coach."
Higgins did a good sell job to convince the energetic Wilkes to come home.
"I wrestled for Farwell for my first two years in high school, and then I moved to Wisconsin and wrestled the final two years," said Wilkes, who also played baseball in high school. "I lost every match I wrestled my freshman year, but as a senior I finished 32-13 in Wisconsin.
"I did talk to Josh and asked if he needed any help with the baseball team, and he said none this year, but wanted me to come back and coach wrestling. I was hired in the fall and began to recruit kids."
Obviously one of the first Wilkes reached out to was Thrush, but Wilkes admitted he wasn't sure Thrush was all in to come back for his senior season.
"I knew Jay wasn't sure he wanted to wrestle when we started, but he got new shoes a month into the season, and then I knew he was in it for the long haul," Wilkes said.
"Yeah, once I got the new shoes, I was trapped after that," Thrush said.
Luckily for Wilkes, Thrush picked up right where he left off after his sophomore season.
Heading into this past weekend, Thrush had a 25-4 record wrestling at 189 pounds. And he has been a help to Wilkes in the practice room, showing some of the new wrestlers – along with Wilkes – moves the younger athletes can build upon.
"He has been a huge asset," Wilkes said. "He has become a leader. He is teaching techniques that I am rusty at, helping the younger kids improve."
Thrush has been a leader in the classroom too, carrying a 3.5 GPA.
How many kids have Wilkes and Thrush had to work with this year?
"We had 12 to start, but we have lost some during the year," Thrush said. "Wrestling is mentally tough on first-year wrestlers; it takes a while to understand the sport. Experience goes a long way in this sport.
"We have a youth program, and I hope the young guys stay in the sport," he added. "And having a new coach helps."
One of those young wrestlers to build the future around is freshman Chase Burchette, who has won more than 20 matches this season at 160 pounds.
Wilkes is looking forward to the future.
"I'm excited," Wilkes said. "When I set up our schedule I only had four wrestlers. And I set up a somewhat difficult schedule, and with what I've seen, I'm excited for the future. It was good to see where our team stood against same-level teams with limited weight classes, and we have done well. But this year I wanted to concentrate on individual, and next year we will concentrate on team."
Farwell is in Division 3 and starts its MHSAA Tournament with Team Districts on Thursday at Clare High School and Individual Districts on Saturday at Freeland.
PHOTOS: (Top) Jay Thrush is again a mat standout as Farwell brought back its wrestling program this winter. (Middle) As a freshmen in 2016, Thrush wrestled Clinton’s Verneri Korkee at the Finals and took eighth in Division 4 at 171 pounds. (Top photo courtesy of the Farwell athletic department; Finals photo by HighSchoolSportsScene.com.)