Photos Cameron Flaisch
When an organization sets a goal of being great and all work to meet those expectations, the birth of some special is inevitable.
A great example of this philosophy can be found in Darlington High School’s wrestling program. For the past four seasons, their young athletes have taken to the mat with one objective in mind, and that objective is to win. When speaking to Darlington’s wrestling coach, Kelly McDurmon, it is hard not to be impressed by the team’s dedication to pinning the competition.
McDurmon cannot express the success of his athletes without a little background on the program.
“This year’s team is unique to me in my 25 years of coaching,” he says. “We have never had a team with four returning state finalists, three of which won the state championship in their respective weight class.”
The coaching staff, which consists of McDurmon and assistants Chris Butler and Craig Kipp, feels like this is a special group this year. “We expect to come home with a trophy after each tournament,” McDurmon says. This culture of excellence, now ingrained in the wrestling program at Darlington, is one that is part of the team’s blueprint to success but has taken time to build outside of the weight room and gym.
The coaching staff also instills a tough mental edge when detailing the roadmap to victory. “When a wrestler walks off that mat after a match with Darlington their arms should be tired and hurting. They should be panting for breath. We like to wrestle at a high pace and be very physical. You should feel like you’ve been in a fight, and part of being physically tough is also being mentally prepared to defeat our opponents,” McDurmon says.
By coaching the mind of his athletes he has tried to make them relentless. Darlington’s wrestlers often work to wear the opposition down. This is only accomplished when workouts push the Tigers’ limits, both physically and mentally. Using this effective method of preparedness has produced results, and successful sports programs across the country often hang their hat on the same practice habits.
This team has a strong senior leadership base since the Tigers roster five seniors out of 12 total wrestlers. Three of the seniors, all defending state champions, are standouts and are in line for huge years. Perhaps what is most impressive is the diversity. McDurmon notes that, “You can’t scout one of the three and think you have Darlington Wrestling figured out. All three of these guys approach their matches differently and use a wide range of skill sets to win.”
The first of the three is Senior, Dalton Blankenship. He is a three-time state champion. “Dalton is a defensive superstar. He is a counter-puncher,” McDurmon explains.
He won the state title in the 106-weight class as a freshman. Blankenship again won the state title at 113 pounds as a sophomore and last season as a junior in the 126-weight class.
Also wrestling for the Tigers is senior, Colton Woods. Like Blankenship, Woods is a three-time state champion. “Colton is incredibly offensive. His moves include lots of fakes and he wrestles at an extremely high pace,” says Coach McDurmon.
Woods won 113-weight class as a freshman, and he captured the title as a sophomore. As a junior he won the state title in the 132-pound weight class.
The last of the three title holders is Rhett McDurmon. Rhett won his first state title as a junior after finishing in second place as a freshman and sophomore. When giving his observations of Rhett’s attack McDurmon says, “He is more of a brawler. He’s a very physical wrestler and he is one of the strongest kids you’ll run into.”
Coach McDurmon plays double duty for a couple of his athletes. He is Rhett’s father, as well as dad to another Darlington wrestler, Carl McDurmon.
“Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to coach brothers or blood relatives. Those rivalries have always driven the team to have some of the best, most intense practices I have seen. Those guys have always seemed to bring their sibling or family rivalries to practice and it inspires everyone to go harder,” recalls McDurmon.
Darlington fills 12 of 14 weight classes. “We are trying to fill all of the weight classes, but sometimes it’s hard to get kids out because not everyone is willing to put in the work it requires to be successful in the blue-collar sport of wrestling. They would have to punish themselves to be ready to punish someone else on the mat, the Darlington way,” McDurmon says.
The team also has two other seniors who were state finalists. Garrett Sheffield, who finished fifth in the state last year, is ready to match the level of his fellow senior teammates. Another, Darlington transfer Tyler Ingram, also finished fifth in state last year in AAAA. McDurmon says, “A lot of leadership comes from these five seniors. We as coaches can make a plan for practice, but we need the leaders to execute the plan. We need them to push these younger guys to learn the Darlington Wrestling way. If so, we stand a good chance of coming home with a trophy from every tournament.”
To further advance the culture, there is a plaque of past champions above the water fountain for all the wrestlers to see and touch. They all have chosen the spot where their name will be, and they visualize it every day.
When reflecting on his 15 years at Darlington McDurmon, who is also a history teacher, remembers how he built the program at Darlington. “I had a pretty good wrestling team at my alma mater when Darlington called on me to coach. I was hesitant to leave what I had built for someone we had pretty much handled every time we faced them.”
During his first season leading the Tigers, Darlington secured a fourth-place trophy in a tournament, several state medalists, and a state finalist. “That season was a pretty big deal at Darlington. Looking back, I realized that season was the beginning of the process of turning out state champions. Over the past 15 years, we’ve had 17 state champions and finished as a top-five team four times.”
With strong senior leadership and the team’s grit and determination, Coach McDurmon hopes to add a few more names over the water fountain.