Retired Colonel Takes New Command- Wrestling Team
MADISON- A high school wrestling program relishes the solid feeder program, which supplies new athletes to the program on a yearly basis. At James Clemens High, those feedings arrive from Liberty Middle School and in the just completed middle school season the squad experienced its best finish in program history.
James Clemens head coach Kevin Pecor has looked for someone to step up and assist in making the middle school program excel and prosper in advance of making the move to the Jets’ varsity program. Pecor received his wish when retired Colonel Dave Baxter came to the rescue and accepted the duties as volunteer coach for the younger Jets’ wrestlers. On Oct. 17, 2023, after 36 years in military service, Baxter retired and immediately hit the mats with the wrestling team.
“It was my transition period from retirement and I decided to make the move as I’ve always been selfless in nature and I wanted to help,” said Baxter, 57. “I know the overall program at James Clemens needed some help in building the foundation youth wrestlers to make for a solid foundation. Matt Witte, a retired Marine, was coaching, but his travel schedule kept him away from the middle school program. He has been phenomenal and brings way more experience than I have. I joined in and our team had its best finish in the program’s history.”
Baxter was Chief of Staff for the Space and Missile Defense Command after arriving in Madison in 2019 arriving to the Tennessee Valley from Fort Sill in Oklahoma. He and his wife of 28 years, Melissa, who helps with the wrestling booster club, have two children. Faith, 23, an athletic trainer for the Auburn University women’s basketball team, and Bryce, 17, who is a junior at James Clemens and wrestles for the Jets in the 132-pound division. Bryce had surgery on his right shoulder in July, has missed his entire junior season and has helped coach the middle school athletes whenever possible.
“Having Bryce helping out has helped us re-learn each other and I’m having a good time,” added Baxter, a former baseball player and wrestler who wrestled intermural at West Point for two years upon his enlistment in the U.S. Army in 1983 and later graduated from West Point in 1991.
The move from the military to the civilian life was perfect for Baxter who liked the transition from the military to an environment of many not responding to commands. He has taken the time necessary to try and find out what motivated the young student-athletes. From his own experiences, he knows how the sport of wrestling teaches the value set needed to be successful in life as the sport builds the foundation of perseverance and attitude needed to be successful.
“I believe our athletes grew up and hungered for the guidance and the competition,” said Baxter.
The 20-member squad responded in a very positive way to Baxter and Witte as many were raw to the sport, but eager to learn. As any wrestler quickly finds out upon joining a wrestling team, the middle school student-athletes were surprised at the physical demand and intense conditioning required to be a good wrestler. Each had to understand the balance and center of gravity the sport requires and the complicated wrestling knowledge it takes to win.
“We focused on basic moves and coached like building blocks,” said Baxter. “I’m a hands-on coach and I try to learn the athletes as they learn me. I offer more encouragement and positive reinforcement and use the tone and inflection of my voice to get a point across to them. I’m not a yeller, but I am loud. As I’m calling out commands, I project my voice.”
Baxter expressed his gratitude to both Pecor and Witte for their willingness to allow him to join in the world of high school wrestling. Each of them has seen the progression of the talent and attitude of the young wrestlers in the program and Baxter would love nothing more than return next year so he can make the commands to young wrestlers and see them respond in a positive way in the first steps in the rest of their lives.