Smith credits Lipp, 26, with changing his life over the past three years. The coach has also transformed the Lions.
Lipp’s first order of business was to move the practices out of the cafeteria. Now the team trains in the lower school gymnasium, often working out on one side of a red divider while a grade-school basketball team plays on the other. Smith appreciates that the school now has a mat roller as the wrestlers had to carry the heavy black padding to the cafeteria in the early days.
The team has tripled in size under the new coach, expanded the dual-meet schedule to make up for the lack of tournaments and slowly improved its results, too. The Lions went 9-3 this season, including a 36-35 win over Gonzaga on Jan. 22.
“Before everyone went out for basketball and track and baseball,” Smith said. “Now wrestling is definitely one of those big sports.”
Meantime, Smith has boosted his profile in the local wrestling community, competing year-round. Last year, he took third at the state tournament at 145 and earned an invite to the prestigious National Prep tournament, where he finished eighth. Up a weight class, he currently holds a 16-1 record with the only loss coming to Spalding’s Logan Breitenbach in the finals at the War on the Shore tournament in December, where he also wrestled unattached.
Smith remains a needed leader by example for a group of newcomers eager to learn. At a recent practice, the senior captain directed the team through warmups while Lipp talked to a visitor, and a few days later, the other wrestlers wordlessly filed into line behind Smith for post-match handshakes after finishing out a 48-15 victory at St. Andrew’s.
“I’d be proud to have him on my team,” Georgetown Prep Coach Mike Kubik said. “He’s just an unbelievable kid. He’ll go to the Naval Academy and stick out from the moment he steps on campus. He’s sort of top-shelf like that, really special.”
‘Opportunity to compete'
Lipp views Smith as an exception rather than the future of the program. Henry Franklin, the tournament’s chairman, said he believes Smith to be the only wrestler to compete unattached since the tournament began in 1995, noting that it has turned down entry requests from age-appropriate wrestlers who did not compete for a high school team.
“Our main priority is to give deserving kids the opportunity to compete,” Franklin said.
The coach said none of his other wrestlers have asked to compete at this weekend’s tournament, and he’d be unlikely to direct others toward the delicate path of competing without the school’s sponsorship.
Riley, the athletic director, said the school does not mind if its wrestlers participate in tournaments on the sabbath without its sponsorship but will not consider relaxing its Shabbat policy.
Rather than emphasizing postseason tournaments, Lipp plans to focus his wrestlers on training for the Maccabiah Games, considered the Jewish Olympics. In 2009, the Ohio native won a silver medal at the event held every four years in Israel.
Smith, on the other hand, has been eyeing a state title his entire career. Though MIS tournament officials won’t identify Smith by the school that has held his family name for three decades, he said he’ll likely wear his team-issued singlet at the event. That uniform — bright blue with a yellow Lion paw print — is another new addition since the days of rolling out the mat in the cafeteria.
“You don’t need all the best stuff or to be on the best team in the state to be wrestling at a high level,” Smith said. “It boils down to sacrifice and hard work, regardless of where and who [you are] with.”