FOREST PARK — The Forest Park wrestling program has emerged as one of Clayton County’s top programs over the last few seasons under head coach Don Williams.

Williams deserves plenty of credit for turning the Panthers into a respected program on the state level, but it was never a one-man job. Williams relied heavily on his assistant coaches to help churn out state placers during this recent run of success.

Judging by the performances by two of those assistants in the Georgia State Games in the spring, it’s no wonder why Forest Park has enjoyed such a positive run in the last few seasons.

Daniel Helena and John Bell each claimed first-place finishes in the Open Division of the Georgia State Games. Helena was a two-time state runner up at Shiloh High before wrestling at UNC Chapel Hill, while Bell was a state champion at Columbia High before wrestling at Lassen Community College in California.

Both collegiate wrestlers, Bell and Helena jumped at the chance to compete on the mat after spending the last few seasons watching from the sidelines.

“Coach Bell supported me when I wrestled in the Georgia Games when I wrestled four years ago,” said Helena. “We talked about competing in this year’s Georgia Games as a fun way to get back in the competitive nature of the sport. We both wrestled at the collegiate level and we still had that itch.”

Helena said both he and Bell went into the tournament with high expectations. What Helena said he didn’t expect, however, was the outpouring of support from the kids and parents in the Forest Park program, who spent a Sunday during the offseason rooting on their beloved coaches.

“When I found out I was not going to come back to Forest Park I thought it would be nice,” said Helena. “It would be a good time to share that time with coach Bell. We had about 15 wrestlers come to support us which was a great gift to ask for. They got their own rides, a lot of them. It meant a lot. For us to compete was great, but for us to both win it with our kids there was really special.

“It was a great opportunity for Forest Park to show how much it has developed over the years,” he continued. “You would not have seen that at all or anything like that before coach Williams took over. It’s a testimony to the strength of the program on a Sunday in the offseason that you have that support.”

Helena was poised to become the next head coach of the Forest Park wrestling program after Williams announced earlier this year that he would be retiring after a 30-year career. But when Helena said he’d be moving to California, Williams decided to return to coach the Panthers during the 2016-17 season.

Still, Williams allowed Helena to assume most of the duties of a head coach last season. Helena said the lessons he learned while acting in an increased role will pay dividends in whatever venture he decides to take on next.

“In terms of coaching, I’ve learned a great deal in terms of how to be a coach,” said Helena. “I was co-head coach this past year, but really coach Williams let me get my feet wet. He was always there to support me any time I needed assistance. I learned a great deal in terms of maintaining a team.”

Helena will leave Forest Park in a better place than he found it. The Panthers will miss his presence within the program, but those that were able to learn from him will be better suited to succeed on the mat and in life.

“My biggest takeaway is the relationships with these student-athletes,” said Helena. “Even though I’m young in my coaching career, I’ll be OK if I don’t have a better group than these guys because I was spoiled here. It was a blessing for me to walk into that situation.

“The fact that we had that success in such a short amount of time and we’ve been able to come to relevance in the state — my biggest takeaway is that anyone can achieve great things when they are held to high standards and high expectations,” he continued. “We did that as a coaching stuff regardless of background or history with wrestling.”

Luke Strickland is the sports editor of the Clayton News in Jonesboro and the Henry Herald in McDonough. He went to school at the University of Georgia.

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