Building a forceful program

Fifth-place finish at state exceeds coach's hopes. 2008 PrepXtra Wrestlers Coach of the Year: Justin Ridge, Greenback

RidgeJustin Ridge ended up back as wrestling coach at Greenback High School as an indirect result of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Now he is witnessing another strong force - his wrestling program.

With a second-straight Region 2 championship and fifth-place finish in the state tournament, Ridge is the News Sentinel's PrepXtra wrestling coach of the year.

"I don't know if I ever expected us in the individual (state) tournament to achieve what we did," said Ridge, whose squad also finished fourth in the A-AA state duals. "I thought it was amazing for the kids to do what they did."

Ridge's road to Greenback began while in college. He had wrestled for William Blount before graduating in 1998 and attending Maryville College, where he helped start a club program and participated his senior year.

At about the same time, his brother, Jason, was helping start the program at Greenback. So he joined the coaching staff. He was soon elevated to head coach.

However, in the summer of 2005, Ridge moved to New Orleans, where his wife, Ashley, was to do an internship as a school psychologist.

After the hurricane hit, they returned to East Tennessee, where Ridge was able to find a teaching position at Loudon and coached wrestling for Grace Christian Academy.

He returned to Greenback as coach in 2006, and the wrestling program took off.

Ridge said he has tried to learn from other successful programs, such as recent state champions Bradley Central and Soddy-Daisy.

"I tried to copycat what we wanted to be like," he said. "I would see what they do well and see how they run their program and do the things they do."

He also looked to his school, which has one of the smaller enrollments in the state.

"I recruit kids within the school," he said, adding that he receives much positive help from assistants Garrick Henderson and Brian Gossett and the parents. "You don't have many kids, so you constantly try to get kids to come out."

This past season, Greenback had four Region 2 champions: Gary Sluder (112 pounds), Eddie Long (125), Jess Hooper (130), and Jackie Miller (189). Sluder, Long, 2007 state champion Jeremy Miller (119) and Silas Burchett (145) also placed in the top six in the state.

Long and Burchett, who have been wrestling on the varsity since the eighth grade, are graduating, and their leadership will be missed, Ridge said.

However, the rest of the state qualifiers return, signifying that the Cherokees might be a force to be reckoned with next year.

"We have a lot of freshmen, so we will be a better dual-meet team," Ridge said. "But people will have to step up for us to have the same individual success we had last year."