When Thomas Woodward took over as the East Lansing High School Trojans head wrestling coach five years ago, the outlook for the program was bleak.
“When I first got here, I was pretty much told East Lansing is not a wrestling city,” Woodward said.
To an outside eye, it looked like the doubters were correct. Woodward’s team suffered consecutive 2-14 seasons in his first three years. But inside the program, Woodward was seeing signs of improvement.
When Woodward stepped in as coach, he set out to build a winning culture. This meant setting high expectations for wrestlers. This caused some wrestlers to leave a team already lacking depth.
“The standards that I set, a lot of them stopped wrestling because it was too tough,” said Woodward, who wrestled collegiately and has 17 years of teaching experience.
2022 graduate was pivotal in helping to turn the ELHS wrestling program around.
But Woodward stayed true to his vision. While the team struggled, the program’s potential manifested in star wrestler Emilio Cabrera . Cabrera, who graduated in 2022, made three appearances in the Michigan High School Athletic Association State Tournament and showed that East Lansing wrestlers can be elite.
Woodward credits Cabrera with helping turn the program around. East Lansing wrestlers are now watching the freshman compete at the next level for Olivet College.
“It’s cool too because I still talk to him and he’s winning matches, he’s getting matches in against people who are ranked in the nation,” Woodward said. “Just as a freshman, getting that kind of experience is just great. I know he’s going to be really awesome as he gets older.”
The 2021-2022 season was a turning point for Trojan wrestling. After collecting six total wins over the previous three seasons, East Lansing won 14 matches. More importantly, the program was gaining popularity with students, with more than 20 wrestlers coming out for the team.
The program’s success has built upon itself. The increased depth has led to hyper-competitive practices where athletes have multiple partners to compete against every day. There are 32 wrestlers on the team this year, the most in over 25 years.
It’s no coincidence the Trojans are on track to have their first winning record under Woodward during the 2022-2023 season. The team is currently 11-11 on the season.
“It’s quite the change of culture,” Woodward said. “Guys are expecting to go out and be victorious. Expecting to be victorious as a team, instead of it just being an individual sport.”
The culture shift is evident on and off the mat. Woodward said he’s seen some of his wrestlers’ classroom behavior and grades improve. This will only make the wrestling team more popular with students and parents going forward.
“Kids see that what we’re teaching is like self-respect and building character,” he said. “Parents see students who were once failing classes now passing classes… You just watch young people turn around and then they spread the word.”
Parents and the athletic department join in to help support the growing program.
Parents are chipping in to help run social media accounts for the program, warm up wrestlers and help with fundraising. Woodward said thanks to the support, he’s hoping to do a golf event for the first time to raise money for the program. He’s also hoping to hold a lift-a-thon fundraiser at some point.
Woodward credits the Cabrera family for being early supporters of the team.
“We were 2-14 and the Cabrera family just embraced the program,” he said. “Other parents saw that and were like ‘Look, we have something to contribute, too.’”
ELHS Athletic Director Nicole Norris has also played a critical role in building the program, Woodward said. Norris stuck by the team when they only had eight wrestlers and made sure the Trojans always had a full schedule.
“To have an athletic director with the support that she gives to the sport is second to none,” Woodward said. “It’s pretty awesome to have her.”
Woodward wants wrestling to be more than an afterschool activity for his athletes and knows some of the athletes have the talent to compete at the next level. He is in contact with college coaches and expects some of the current Trojans to compete at the collegiate level after they graduate.
“Furthering that education to secondary is super important to me and if wrestling can be a pathway, that’s what I’m here for,” Woodward said.
Woodward names freshman Kingston Laurain, and juniors Julius Goodwin and Julian Terranova as some of the Trojans top performers this year. He also credits senior Logan Millard as being a strong leader for the younger wrestlers.
The girls wrestling program has built from one athlete to four this year.
The Trojans are also putting together a promising girls wrestling program. Woodward said last year there was one girl who competed. Three more have joined the team this year and Woodward is confident the team will continue to build.
“I have four girls now, they go at it in practice,” he said. “Watch that grow when there’s a fifth girl and a sixth girl, how much better these wrestlers are going to become.”
The girls’ team is made up of three freshmen and a sophomore, Woodward said. The boys’ team is also heavily reliant on underclassmen, leaving him excited to see what happens as the wrestlers improve and mature.
This year the Trojans have defeated some of their biggest rivals and finished second in the Waverly invitational. But with the program’s youth and momentum, Woodward knows this is just the start.
“We’re freshmen and sophomores and we’re out here beating Eaton Rapids and beating Waverly,” he said of wins over established programs. “I can’t wait to see what this story turns into in three years.”