SUWANEE — The multiple mats at Collins Hill’s Cliff Ramos Wrestling Facility were busy from wall to wall throughout this past weekend, thanks in large part to a dedicated group of former Eagles.
Cody Parker, a community coach at the high school when he’s not at his day job with Marriott International, put together the Gwinnett County Legends Camp in a rush over the past month and the turnout of young athletes was exciting for the inaugural event. A large number of coaches with impressive resumés locally and nationally worked the camp, which drew athletes of all ages from the Collins Hill cluster schools and beyond.
Parker took over in July as the head of the Collins Hill Youth Wrestling Club, and wanted to kick off the season in style.
“I think most of it was I just thought about Collins Hill, the tradition we’ve had and how many guys we’ve had wrestle in college,” Parker said. “They’re kind of all over the place. I wanted to bring a lot of those guys back and just have them give back to the program. And find a right way to do it. I didn’t want it to be this super, crazy, expensive camp paying $300, $400 (per kid). I wanted kids to be able to afford it, come in, work out.
“The best thing is that these guys came back and gave back. I can’t believe how many coaches we have here, 11 that are either currently wrestling in college or have wrestled in college. That’s not easy to get.”
Parker, a 2008 Collins Hill grad, has stayed connected at his alma mater since his early 20s, serving as a community coach for seven years. He heads up the wrestling program’s alumni association, not that he needs an official organization to stay close with his longtime friends.
The former Eagles coaching over the weekend included Ryan Millhof, Gwinnett’s first NCAA Division I All-American in wrestling, as well as three-time high school state champion Taylor Knapp, who wrestled at Virginia Tech and Newberry. Two-time state champion Joel Smith (a former Arizona State wrestler) also was in the group along with Appalachian State wrestler Codi Russell, who brought one of his college teammates to help out.
“The alumni, we’re like brothers,” Parker said. “We may go our separate ways, do other things, life happens, but we always keep up with each other. When we come home, it’s like no time has passed. Whether the guys help with wrestling or don’t, it’s always a family. It’s been like that a long time and we’re trying to keep that tradition. It’s a great program to be a part of. I think it’s something special. People don’t forget what was given to them, so they always try to give back.”
That was the case for the Collins Hill grads working the camp.
“These (young) guys need to see us because we came from the same program,” Smith said. “There’s definitely a kid in here right now that might be better than all of us. I think it’s important that we be here to give them the same skill sets and the same foundation. We know how to train. I think that’s the most important thing is we show them how to train, how it’s supposed to look. So when we’re not here, they can still incorporate that into what they do.”
The camp staff also included current head coach Nate Ethridge and his assistants, Shannon Felix and Joe DeNova, a two-time state champion at Columbus and Harris County. Other coaches were Jacob Hale, Tariq Malik, Devane Dodgens, Brad Irwin, Latear Dukes, Alec Noa, Abner Roman, Sam Roundtree, Stephen Hawthorne, Jim Clarke and Jackie Perez.
DeNova has helped the Eagles for three years, joining the program because of its reputation and its proximity to his post-college job.
“It’s been a great turnout (for the camp),” DeNova said. “We’ve had a lot of great kids come out from all over the state, all over the Atlanta area. Some top-notch clinicians are coming in and really giving back to these kids and giving back to the program. It’s incredible.”
Ethridge had a successful first season with the goal of returning Collins Hill to its past level — the program launched by Ramos has 11 team state championships between the traditional and duals tournaments. The past victories don’t keep the alumni coming back, though. Instead, it’s the relationships and camaraderie built that matter most.
“(The program) means a lot to us,” Smith said. “I think this program changed a lot of our lives. We’ve all gone on and went to college and got degrees. We honed our skill sets. We started it all here. It became a feeder program to get to the highest level.”