Sitting matside on a folding chair, the 63-year-old head coach, owner of a lofty spot in the national record books, cups his hands around his mouth and barks out encouragement to wrestlers still getting accustomed to a winning environment.
Pacing behind the bench is an unpaid assistant who just happens to have won more team championships that any coach in state history.
And the man who hired both of them is likely the most well-known high school coach in Minnesota.
Standards are high at Eden Prairie, a school with 43 state championship teams across 18 sports since 1996. With about 3,000 students in a relatively affluent community, the school drips with potential.
None of those championships has come on the wrestling mat. However, the school significantly boosted its wrestling commitment the past two seasons with a pair of high-profile additions that have the prep wrestling world abuzz.
In 2013, the school hired 43-year coaching veteran Scot Davis to head up the program. The tireless Davis coached Owatonna for 25 seasons until 2011, winning two state championships, and owns the national record for coaching victories, currently at 1,033.
“He is an ambassador for the sport of wrestling,” St. Michael-Albertville coach Dan LeFebvre said.
Under Davis’ direction, Eden Prairie won 19 dual matches last year, tying a school record. Nice, but just a small step in his grand plan.
“We’re trying to become an A-level program,” said Davis, who also previously coached at Belcourt (N.D.), Bird Island-Lake Lillian, Hutchinson and Kalispell (Mont.). “It’s not that Eden Prairie hasn’t been good. They got to the state tournament in 2010. But their section wasn’t that tough, and there’s a lot of work to do to reach that level consistently.”
Enter Jim Jackson.
In his 17 years coaching at Apple Valley, Jackson led the Eagles to 14 state championships and a national championship in 2011. They compiled a 618-27-3 record before Jackson stepped down in 2012, saying he wanted to spend time with family.
But it wasn’t long before the urge to get back into the wrestling room, spurred on by his daughter Taylor, a freshman at Prior Lake, became impossible to ignore
“She missed me being a coach,” Jackson said. “She kept asking when I was going to start coaching again.”
Jackson reached out to Davis and, with the approval of athletic director Mike Grant, was brought on as an unpaid assistant. Jackson’s title is associate head coach.
So now there’s Davis, the nation’s winningest wrestling coach, and Jackson, Minnesota’s most successful coach, running a program under the auspices of the state’s most accomplished football coach.
“It’s incredible to have two coaches like that here,” said senior 138-pounder Ben Brancale, who is ranked No. 1 in Class 3A at his weight. “When I heard Jackson was coming here, I couldn’t wait for the season to start.”
On the surface, it would seem to be a matter of time before the wrestling team makes state tournament appearances routine. But Eden Prairie’s across-the-board success provides a challenge for wrestling.
“This isn’t like it is at Owatonna,” Davis said. “There are so many other sports for these kids that wrestling can be a tough sell.”
Davis’ first priority was to ensure that the commitment to success was there. He made sure the middle school wrestling program, which had been eliminated years earlier in a cost-cutting move, was reinstated. Grant helped by forging a relationship between Davis and the Eden Prairie Youth Football Association.
“He brought me around to meet every youth football team and their coaches, taking about how much wrestling benefits football,” Davis said.
A longtime supporter of wrestling, Grant has gone as far printing up 5x7 glossy cards that he distributes to his football players, extolling the sports’ benefits under the headline “Wrestling will help you achieve a competitive edge in football.”
He said wrestling, not football, provided the most memorable moment in his tenure as athletic director. He was at the state meet a few years ago watching Sam Brancale, Ben’s older brother, wrestle in the finals against undefeated Mitch Bengston of St. Cloud Apollo.
“Sam was down 1-0 with seven seconds to go and we stood up and thought, ‘Well, this is over.’ And then, out of nowhere, he comes up with a reversal and gets two points and wins the match,’’ Grant said. “We all jumped up and threw our arms in the air. We couldn’t believe it. Where did that come from? It was the most exciting thing I’ve experienced here.”
Hiring Davis and Jackson did not come without concerns, both in Eden Prairie and the wrestling community at large.
The Minnesota State High School League suspended Davis from coaching for two years in 2012 and 2013 after allegations surfaced that he was trying to entice a wrestler from California to move to Owatonna. Jackson’s tenure at Apple Valley was dotted with grumblings — never proven — that his program encouraged elite wrestlers to transfer to the school.
Grant said Eden Prairie did due diligence before hiring them.
“We asked those questions when we talked to people about them, and the answers always came back positive,” Grant said. “They’re just two guys that have a passion for wrestling. If they could put on a singlet and wrestle, they would.”
In practice, Davis, sharp-eyed and technical, is the craftsman, teaching the sport’s finer points. The fit and energetic Jackson is a master motivator, focusing on each wrestler’s mental approach.
Aided by a skilled group of assistant coaches that includes Tom LeClair, Derek Skala and Jeff Hohertz, they have Eden Prairie clearly on the upswing. The Eagles are 18-2 this season and certain to reach one of Davis’ primary goals — setting a school record for victories in a season — this week.
“I can’t believe how much better we are with these coaches,” said junior 220-pounder Josh Reinke, whose 17-2 record is one of the Eagles’ biggest success stories. “I’m definitely better in my technique and my conditioning and my agility.”
As for state championships? Both Davis and Jackson say that possibility is a long way off and may never materialize. But, Jackson said, the potential is there.
“This program is absolutely improving,” he said. “But if they want to look to the future, the work starts now.”