The future is looking bright for Van Buren’s wrestling program, thanks to the leadership of first-year head coach John Petree.

Petree and his team of talented athletes recently wrapped up a record-breaking season. Van Buren won a total of 13 duals this year, the most in the school’s history. The wins included a victory over Roger-Heritage, which was another first for the program. In addition to the school’s impressive record, several individual players stood out at tournaments.

Sophomore R.J. Riley and junior Christian Carney both performed well throughout the season, along with seniors Walter Green, Dylan Swearingen, and Tyler Thacker. Junior Mason Hayes, a three-time state competitor, placed third at the state tournament last month.

Since arriving in Van Buren at the beginning of the school year, Petree has worked hard to grow Van Buren’s wrestling program and to further develop the talent of its players. This year’s team was comprised of several underclassmen, including freshmen who started on varsity. This marked the first year for Van Buren to also have a junior high team, a step that Petree believes will help in establishing highly competitive lineups at the high school level.

“That’s how you build a program,” Petree said. “Wrestling is a sport where muscle memory comes into play a lot. Teaching the basics early just helps develop that more and more.”

An Oklahoma native, Petree was on both the wrestling and football teams in high school. After serving in the army and attending college, he returned to his alma mater, Sallisaw, where he coached wrestling. Despite Van Buren’s wrestling program being considerably younger than the well-established program in Oklahoma, Petree jumped at the chance to be head coach at Van Buren and help build up the sport in Arkansas.

“I love it here in Van Buren and it has been a fantastic fit,” he said. “I have received a tremendous amount support from the administration and the parents. We have really come a long way this year and it is exciting.”

Petree’s passion for the sport is shared by others in the community, including a group of local volunteers who started a youth program for ages 4-15. The Van Buren coach volunteers his time each week to help with training the group, which includes approximately 50 participants. The youth team has also experienced much success in recent months, with three students taking home state championships in their respective weight classes.

Part of Petree’s strategy for growing the program is increasing its visibility throughout the community. VBSD’s wrestling program is relatively new in comparison to many other sports, which is a trend throughout the state.

“Wrestling in the state of Arkansas is still fairly young,” Petree said.

He acknowledges that there are also many common misconceptions about the sport, which may hinder participation for some families.

“The injury rate for wrestling is low,” Petree said. “There are a lot of rules in place and safety aspects to help keep students from getting hurt.”

The coach works with parents and players to determine the student’s appropriate weight class to ensure they are properly matched with opponents.

“There are 14 weight classes, starting at 106 through 285 pounds,” he said.

Petree also knows that wrestling can prove beneficial to athletes participating in all different sports.

“It doesn’t matter what sport you play, wrestling helps you out tremendously,:” he said. “It improves balance, agility, and flexibility, which are important to all athletes. Students are not as likely to get hurt if they are in shape and have good flexibility and such.”

In addition to the fitness advantages, wrestling provides students with a wealth of opportunities after high school.

“There are big time scholarship opportunities in wrestling,” he said. “The fastest growing sport in the nation is women’s wrestling.”

Coach Petree said he is grateful to be in Van Buren and to have experienced such a positive first year with the program. He said he is confident that his players will continue to build upon this year’s success and that as word spreads, his roster will grow even more.

“Wrestling is a great sport to get involved in, as it requires much discipline, and helps instill important skills that will benefit students in school and life,” Petree said.

Learn more about Van Buren’s growing wrestling program by following the team on Facebook, @VanBurenWrestling.