By Brian Paglia
Cliff Fretwell's son had a Hall of Fame wrestling coach at Henry County High School in Marty Hutsell who wrestled at Indiana. But the modern high school wrestler needs more instruction time than high school practices allow, so after practice, Fretwell and his son would drive an hour-and-a-half to private wrestling facilities in Cobb and Gwinnett counties.
Sometimes the extra practices lasted as long as two hours. Sometimes the Fretwells made the trip several times a week. It was a critical and necessary sacrifice to the Fretwells that turned their son, Anthony, into a two-time state champion who's now a rising sophomore on Indiana's wrestling team.
"I took my son other places," Fretwell said. "I wanted my son to learn from everybody. I drove an hour-and-a-half one way to everywhere his whole career and it paid off, and he had a great high school coach."
The Fretwells haven't been alone in the dilemma they faced, fighting against the proximity, or lack thereof, of private wrestling facilities. Wrestlers from the Southern Crescent have been going to top training centers in the North Metro area, like The Wrestling Center in Smyrna or The Wrestling Academy in Lawrenceville, to supplement their high school instruction for years.
To fill that void, Fretwell and former Jefferson assistant coach Lee Roper opened The Compound Wrestling Center in Stockbridge in late January, the only private wrestling facility south of Interstate-20.
"When Cliff and I started tossing ideas around, this was the place we wanted to do it," said Roper, who was a conference champion at Appalachian State.
"We know the kids are down here that can make us successful and we're giving them the opportunity to reach the limits they can. It's a perfect place. I think it's something the community's been craving for a long time."
The idea -- to open the first private wrestling center in the South Metro area -- began to bubble in possibility last November. When it began to boil over in anticipation, Roper quit his job as a math teacher at Jefferson to run the daily operations. Fretwell kept his job as a web developer, but is an equal contributor as a coach and co-owner.
Fretwell said over 60 wrestlers of all ages attended the first practice in January. Since then, around 45 wrestlers come out regularly. The Compound offers practices and camps. Its most recent camp was run by former NCAA champions Cary Kolat (Penn State) and Joe Dubuque (Indiana).
"We're trying to build something special here," Fretwell said. "Not that our approach is better, but we think we put a little different thought into it and definitely a ton of passion into it. We just expect high standards from our kids, top to bottom. We're hoping that translates into a lot of success."
So far, it's translated into an impressive collection of followers.
On a recent Wednesday night, 18 high school wrestlers were practicing in the facility on Red Oak Road. Hip-hop music emanated from the ceiling. The back doors were left open to let the sweltering heat fill a room which held space enough for two wrestling mats.
Union Grove's Hunter Gamble and Griffin Higginbotham were there. So was Henry County's Brett Yarbrough. So were wrestlers from Ola and Locust Grove.
"Hopefully kids in this area will take advantage of the opportunity," Ola head coach Joey DiNino said. "It gives these kids a local place to train with some of the best kids in the area and hopefully around the state."
Indeed, on that Wednesday night, there were wrestlers from Southwest DeKalb, Carrollton, Athens and Heritage. Fretwell and Roper spent time with Tucker state champ Carey Cloud. Recently, two-time state champ Brian St. James of Centennial stopped by for a work out, as did Lassiter state-champ Acton Pifer.
"It's great that these kids instill their faith in our coaching ability and our skill set to get in a car on a week night and drive an hour-and-a-half to work for two hours," Fretwell said.
After years of driving, Fretwell knows that level of commitment. So he, along with Roper, is determined to make The Compound a success.
"These kids deserve a nice place, too," Fretwell said. "And I think not only deserve to have a nice place, they deserve to have the best coaches in the state, too. Not saying we are, but that's what we're striving to be."