As a high school wrestler and an assistant coach at Jefferson High, Kendall Love found out firsthand what it takes to build a successful program. So when Commerce High offered him a head coaching position four years ago, he was more than ready.
“I was raised in the Jefferson program and learned a lot from coach (Doug) Thurmond,” Love said. “He taught me a lot about the do’s and don’t of running a program.
“When I first got here, the program wasn’t thriving,” he added. “They won a state title here in 1990, but since then, they haven’t been real successful.”
In order to ensure success, Love knew he had to put an emphasis on starting a junior program that allowed aspiring wrestlers a chance to learn techniques and discipline that they would eventually need once they reached the high school level.
“It helps when the wrestlers come in with experience,” Love said.
He found that out this year, as Commerce placed 10 of its 14 wrestlers and finished third at the Class A state tournament. For that accomplishment, Love has been named The Times’ Wrestling Coach of the Year.
“You couldn’t have picked a better coach,” said Thurmond. “He was a guy I hated losing, but I gave him the best recommendation.”
Even if it was to coach at a rival school.
“You got to go where there’s a job,” Thurmond said.
“Commerce was ready to get its program back to where it once was, and they picked the right guy to get them there.”
After finishing seventh at the state tournament in his first year at the helm, Love started to see an improvement in the quality of wrestlers in his second and third season when the team finished fourth in state. Coming into this season, he knew the Tigers would be able to improve on the previous finishes.
“We had a good group of six seniors who were real hard workers,” Love said. “I figured we’d be in the top three.”
He was right, as the Tigers had three runner-ups, one state champion and finished 11.5 points behind second-place Gordon Lee. Their one title winner was Nick Arostegui, who placed first in the 152-pound weight class and who Love called the “best 152-pounder in all classifications.”
“He can wrestle anyone,” Love said. “He’s a tough-working kid that beat the Class AAAAA champ this season.”
Having a state champion on his team not only helped catapult Commerce to a third-place finish, but it also provided a role model for the younger wrestlers.
“They look at Nick and see how hard he works and what it takes to be a state champion,” Love said.
That work ethic is critical to achieving a level of success like at Jefferson, which is a goal of Love’s.
“I think we’re well on our way,” Love said of how close Commerce is to being a powerhouse like the Dragons. “It’s a good, friendly rivalry and we’ve closed the gap on them.”
The Tigers hope to shrink that gap even more next year, when they return four state placers (Josh Westmoreland, Cole Ledford, Addison Davis and Serguio Rojas).
“We’re going to be young, but I still think we’re capable of another top-five finish,” Love said.
And what about beating Jefferson?
“That would be big,” Love said. “They’re what we want to be, and it would be nice to be able to beat a program like that.”