The head coach from Heber |

The head coach from Heber

Adia Waldburger, of the Record staff

It’s kind of funny that it took so long for Dave McNaughtan to become the head wrestling coach at Park City High School. After all, the guy’s no stranger to heading things up.

He’s the vice principal at the high school, and Wednesday welcomed his fifth child into the world. So he’s a virtual expert when it comes to managing a crew, but it took a urgent situation to push the wrestling guru back onto the mat and into the coaching world.

McNaughtan, who lives in Heber City, spent years as an assistant coach in the nationally-ranked Wasatch High School programs that produced wrestlers such as Olympic gold medallist Cael Sanderson. As much as McNaughtan enjoyed working with the program, when he took the job at Park City High last year, he decided to sit out the season.

Then, things all came together this fall. As the time came for the wrestling season to start, long-time Park City wrestling coach Eric O’Conner didn’t step forward for another year. Rather than panic, McNaughtan and Park City High School athletic director Doug Payne, who also has a strong wrestling background, decided that they could take on the task themselves. McNaughtan determined with a little bit of tweaking of schedules both at school and at home he could head up the team, with Payne as the assistant and two other men, George Rocci and Zach McManus, as helpers. A group of excited Miner wrestlers also helped seal the deal.

"We’ve got kids that were psyched when they heard I was going to become the coach," McNaughtan said.

Still, the decision wasn’t easy. With baby No. 5 on the way, McNaughtan knew how time-consuming a head-coaching position could be. But after checking with "the boss," as he calls his wife, McNaughtan decided he would make the commitment to make things work.

"It’s definitely a challenge," McNaughtan said. "I know how much time it takes as well as my wife was pregnant."

Now that McNaughtan is fully engaged in the program, the job has been both fun and challenging. When he first began, he had never set foot in a Park City wrestling practice. Rather than instituting a crash course in his way of doing things, McNaughtan decided to ease into things slowly. He tries to keep the focus on the basics and take the time to teach fundamental skills. He did a lot of that Wasatch, he said, but the difference at Wasatch was they were teaching a move the kids had learned growing up, but many of the Miners are learning for the first time.

The Miners’ two biggest hurdles are numbers and experience. McNaughtan said that a few of the athletes quit early on in the season, so the team wrestles most meets with holes in certain weight classes. It also fewer less people to wrestle with in practice. McNaughtan explains that he is the only match to wrestle heavyweight Doug Eaton, as the sizeable senior outweighs the other wrestlers by quite a bit. As far as experience goes, outside of freshman transfer Jeremiah Hickman, the rest of the team has less than four years of wrestling experience.

To keep the team moving forward, McNaughtan made a drastic change in team scheduling. When he first looked at the line-up for the year, he knew there would be some problems. With mostly double-elimination tournaments slated, McNaughtan could see the Miners starting out in a deficit. The team had told him about a tournament in Panguitch the year before where they were all eliminated in the first day and remembered more about the five-hour bus trip than anything. McNaughtan immediately cancelled the previous engagements and signed the team up for a number of duel meets. With a duel format, every wrestler in a weight class from every school is required to wrestle one another, which has given the Miners a quick dose of experience. the second week of the season, the team already had competed in more matches than all of last year.

"The kids were a little surprised when I said they would wrestle nine times that week," McNaughtan said, chuckling. "Practice isn’t enough. You’ve got to have that pressure to perform."

Getting the kids to wrestle hard both in practice and in competition has not been hard. People had told him that Park City kids were lazy and a good wrestling program would never come to fruition, but McNaughtan says that is definitely not the case.

"People say that Park City won’t have a good wrestling program," McNaughtan said. "I don’t believe that. These kids work as hard as any."

Now he just sees a few more things that need to change and it’s mostly a numbers game. He says more kids must get involved in wrestling and more coaches must step forward and help form a development program for elementary and junior high school students. His son, Jake, who is now 11, has been wrestling since he was five in Heber and McNaughtan would like to see a program for young children begin in Park City. He also wants to see the team compete in off-season club wrestling and freestyle tournaments.

Things already seem to be changing. McNaughtan says the kids’ mind set is more focused on winning.

"They are eager," he said. "These kids are very hard-working."

That pleases McNaughtan who is used to working with winners. He says he takes that determination and uses his knowledge to make the Miners more successful in matches.

"I have been around the block a lot, so when I walk into a meet, I know what to do to be successful on the coaching side," McNaughtan said.

McNaughtan learned his coaching skills from the best. The Air Force brat wrestled two years in Alaska before moving to Clearfield his junior year and wrestling there. After high school, he went to college to become a teacher. In the meantime, his parents moved to Heber, where his dad was originally from. At that point, McNaughtan decided to volunteer as a wrestling coach at Wasatch right after the legendary coach Steve Sanderson quit. He went on to spend nine years as an assistant there. Later, Sanderson returned and McNaughtan soaked up all of the knowledge and skill that he could.

"I’ve had the chance to practice and learn from some of the best coaches around," McNaughtan said.

He even called Coach Sanderson when he decided to take the Park City job and asked him the best way to approach the program.

"He said ‘Keep it simple, practice basics and that is all you need,’" McNaughtan said.

He is already excited about the progress of his team. Justus Minardi, a newcomer to the sport, brings a wealth of martial arts experience to mat and has been placing high in tournaments. Jake Knight, who took a year off from wrestling, returned to the team this year and has been improving daily.

"If he sticks with it, he’s got all the potential in the world," McNaughtan said.

So, even though the Miners are rookies, McNaughtan said he is lucky to have a team full of athletes who can quickly learn moves and strategies And despite the fact that the Miners are surrounded by good wrestling programs in Wasatch and North and South Summit, he reminds them that they can develop into good wrestlers no matter where they come from.

"They have to understand, just because someone has a Wasatch or South Summit singlet on, it doesn’t mean they are a good wrestler," McNaughtan said, emphasizing the individual nature of the sport. "That’s what’s good about wrestling, its just you against someone else."

McNaughtan and the Miners will return to the mat next week in Region 10 dual meet against Uintah on Thursday, Jan. 4 at 7 p.m. at Park City High School.

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