LINCOLN, Maine — When Jackson Sutherland of Lincoln was 3 years old, he liked wrestling on the floor with his father, Josh, who had been a wrestler for Mattanawcook Academy in the late ’90s.
“I got interested when I was a little kid [and] my dad used to wrestle around with me and it felt really fun,” said Jackson, who will soon turn 8. “It just felt fun, it was in me, I wanted to do it, so I tried it out and I was pretty good.”
Now their enthusiasm for the sport has helped build a burgeoning program that serves a couple of dozen boys from kindergarten through fifth grade in the summer. The winter Little Lynx program, which has both recreational and travel components, has between three and four dozen wrestlers.
“There was a youth program [already] that kind of started when my son was 5,” said Josh Sutherland. “He was old enough to be in the youth program. I took him up and helped out a little bit with it, and sort of ended up taking over the program along with my wife.”
Josh Sutherland picked up some pointers from Chris Sirois at a similar program in Howland which hosts an annual tournament in the winter season.
Dover-Foxcroft, Dexter, Bucksport and Camden also have youth programs and they set up meets to wrestle against each other in addition to tournaments in which multiple teams participate, such as Saturday’s Jammer Summer Classic at Camden Hills Regional High School in Rockport. The Jammer Summer Classic will wrap up Lincoln’s program until the winter season.
Tournaments also are held in other wrestling hotbeds such as Rumford and Sanford.
A program grows
It had been suggested to the Sutherlands that Jackson needed to get involved with a sport where he could apply the intensity he displayed.
“We started him with karate, but it was so slow and methodical, and he is intense,” said Sarah Sutherland. “It could be intense in a good way or intense in a tantrum, freaking-out, crying way.
“The one thing that he wanted to do was wrestling, so it took a while for Josh to figure out that if [Jackson] was going to do it, if he was going to have a wrestling team, that he [Josh] had to do it.”
Lincoln’s wrestling programs at the time, both summer and winter, were brief.
“You had to be in kindergarten and it was for three weeks in March,” said Sarah. “They got to wrestle in a few meets and one tournament, the Howland tournament.
“Then they’d do a weeklong summer program, an hour a day for five days.”
That summer program wasn’t a good fit for Jackson, though.
“Josh took Jackson once,” Sarah said, “but there weren’t really a lot of little kids at the summer one. It just wasn’t what Josh was looking for for Jackson.”
The Sutherlands went to Ron Weatherbee, the rec director in Lincoln, to see if they could host a clinic during Christmas break 2010.
“You know, give them a place to go and some inside activity to do and see what the interest is,” said Sarah.
Forty signed up for the clinic. Not all 40 showed up, but there were enough to encourage Josh, who talked to Weatherbee again.
“Josh was, like, ‘Can we just keep this going?’ Because he had a slow winter with work that year,” said Sarah.
Weatherbee gave them the OK.
“April 7, I think, was the last tournament, so that was a big first season,” said Sarah. “I think at the Howland tournament, we had 27 go.”
Now the Sutherlands are approaching their fourth year of involvement in wrestling.
Anthony Radecki of Newark, Del., who has a summer camp in the area, likes what he has found for his son, Eddie.
“I’m really impressed with the numbers. My son, he’s 5, weighs 40 pounds. Up here, they have five or six guys in that K-first grade range, 45 pounds.”
Jackson likes the engagement that he feels through the sport.
“It’s hard,” he said. “I have to push myself to wrestle and it just feels fun. Pushing myself makes me happy.”
Wrestling isn’t always his favorite thing to do, but it’s not far from it.
“Sometimes it gets a little down, then it creeps back up to the top again,” Jackson said.
Strength in numbers
Lincoln’s numbers are comparable to surrounding towns.
According to Sarah Sutherland’s rough count, Dexter has 40 or 50 wrestlers but its season is only a few weeks compared with Lincoln’s four months. Sarah Sutherland is unsure of the other towns’ numbers, but she did point out that Dexter’s and Dover-Foxcroft’s programs both cover kindergarten through grade eight.
And the Little Lynx are more than holding their own, tying Dover-Foxcroft for first in one tournament and winning another one outright.
That comes from the work the Sutherlands and the volunteer coaches put into it.
“A lot of the [winter] coaches that help me — or help us, we’re all in this together — never wrestled a day in their life,” said Josh Sutherland. “But they sat on a stage and watched practice and now they’re very good coaches.
“I think that’s our key to success: not one coach with 30 kids, but 10 coaches with 30 kids.”
And they want to do it right.
“I like how it is because they do have fun, but at the same time, it is still pretty serious,” said Bobbi Ireland of Lincoln. “The coaches don’t put up with a lot of slack from the kids, which is good, and it’s been like that from the start. But they still let them have fun.”
Ireland and her son Brock were introduced to the Little Lynx by her brother-in-law, who was coaching.
“He had talked to my son. I took him to the first practice and Brock loved it. We’ve been stuck here ever since,” she said, smiling. “We love it. We’d do it all year, all year long.”
Keeping it fun
It’s hard to hold the attention of 7-year-olds. So the Lincoln wrestling program includes a few minutes of drills and a few minutes of games, then back to drills and so forth for an hour and a half.
There is one game that appears to have universal appeal.
“Sharks and minnows,” said Deegan Digswell, 8.
A handful of wrestlers are designated as sharks, who are placed in the middle of the mats. The rest, the minnows, line up on one edge and try to spring on hands and knees to the far side of the mats.
When a shark grabs a minnow, he then has to pin the minnow. If he can do that before the minnow reaches the other side, the minnow becomes a new shark. That continues for a few minutes, the ranks of the sharks swelling and the minnows decreasing.
Digswell has his preference.
“Minnow,” he stated. And he said he always gets through.
Parents are finding that wrestling provides benefits in everyday life and in other sports.
“We’ve hiked three mountains this year,” said Ireland. “His goal this summer is to go on top of Mount Katahdin. But to do all this stuff is about keeping in shape.”
Amanda Whirty said anger management was an important lesson.
“He [her oldest son] has gone to tournaments where he’s had guys smacking him upside the head,” said Whirty, “and he had to really think and use technique to pin the guy rather than actually physically hurt him. That is probably the best thing they could have possibly ever learned, and I think it’s great.”
Dave Hainer’s son Isaac left early to go to his dad’s football clinic, but the older Hainer sees the value of wrestling.
“I was never a wrestler myself,” said Hainer. “Now, looking back on it, hindsight being 20-20, I think I would have been such a better football player if I’d wrestled. There’s so many similarities about just leverage and using your hands.
“A double-leg takedown in wrestling is basically the same steps as we teach as a form tackle in football. … I’ve started encouraging my high school football players to pick up wrestling, even if it’s later in life for them than these little guys.”
The Sutherlands hope the school department will see the value, too.
The middle school program was cut last year but Sarah hopes it’s back in the budget this year in light of the success of the Little Lynx program.
“There hasn’t been the high school team that has this many wrestlers on it since I’ve been here,” said Josh. “The program has had low numbers and lack of interest, but we really hope this will change things.”