Jeff Holmes has led the Millbrook wrestling program for the past eight seasons.

In 2017, Holmes guided the Pioneers to the Conference 21 West title. They would go on to place sixth in the region and eighth in the Class 4 state tournament, the highest finishes among local squads in both tournaments.

Holmes was The Winchester Star’s Wrestling Coach of the Year in 2017. Last season, the Pioneers tied for sixth in the Northwestern District tournament.

Holmes graduated from Cicero-North Syracuse (N.Y.) High School in 1997. He wrestled four seasons there, winning a sectional championship and earning a runner-up finish in the state championship at 140 pounds as a senior. He also played middle linebacker for the school’s football team.

Holmes is 2002 graduate of SUNY-Oswego. He wrestled there and qualified for the NCAA Division III Tournament at 157 pounds as a junior.

Prior to taking over as head coach, Holmes was an assistant wrestling coach for four seasons at Millbrook. He also coached two years as an assistant at SUNY-Oswego. He spent four years as an assistant at James Wood Middle School. He also coached football and track & field at the middle school.

Q: What are your favorite memories as an athlete?

Holmes: I was on a club team and I got chosen [after graduating high school] to go to Denmark and Estonia to wrestle internationally. That was a pretty special time, being able to travel to Europe and the Scandinavian areas and compete nationally and represent the United States. That was pretty memorable. I met a lot of great people and families.

I also enjoyed the camaraderie that goes into playing athletics and the memories you make — traveling with your teammates, staying in hotels, just being boys and having a good time. It’s the relationships you build and the fun you have, even outside of the sport.

Making the NCAA Tournament was memorable. It was pretty exciting. It was a little disappointing because I had one of my worst tournaments (at the NCAAs) of the year. That’s not a good time to wrestle poorly, but it was a really neat event. That was the year the Simpson (College) kid (Nick Ackerman) with no legs won the national championship. He beat [an unbeaten and defending national champion] to win that title. It was exciting to see something like that. I think he shared the Hodge Award that year with Cael Sanderson, which is kind of neat.

Q: When did you know you wanted to be a coach?

Holmes: I think that’s the whole reason why I got into teaching because I wanted to coach. That was one thing I knew early — I wanted to be a wrestling coach or a coach of some sort. Once I knew my professional football dreams were kind of diminished because I wasn’t quite tall, strong or fast enough, I knew that I wanted to get into coaching. Athletics always meant so much to me. That’s the reason why I enjoyed going to school — to play sports and be involved. I wanted to continue to be involved in athletics. Coaching was the best way to do that. And teaching was the best way to do that.

Q: Who are your biggest coaching influences and why?

Holmes: My high school wrestling coach Derek Bigford. In my opinion, he’s kind of who has given me my coaching style and my mentality in terms of the mental toughness that he showed me. It was he just pushing me to the limits. I know for a fact without him I would have never been close to being in the state finals. … I started wrestling kind of late. He would work out with me and at the time it was close to torture. Looking back on it, it was great. He’s definitely a huge influence and I still talk to him to this day which is really nice.

Even my college wrestling coach Mike Howard, he was a good mentor for me. He helped me develop the coaching side of it. Coach Bigford really helped me develop as an athlete, gave me my mind frame and to push yourself to the limits, not giving up. Coach Howard really mentored me as athlete, but I find him more as a mentor as teaching me how to coach, develop workout plans, dealing with and working with athletes and things of that nature.

Q: What the best piece of coaching advice you have received?

Holmes: Probably my best piece of coaching advice has just happened recently. It was just about how you deal with your athletes and loving them up. Obviously you want them to push themselves and be great athletes, but they are people first.

The saying went something like, “You want your players to play hard for you not because they’re afraid to disappoint you.” It helped me realize that it’s more important to love these kids up more in defeat rather than in victory. … Part of coaching, you really try to push kids and you forget sometimes that they are just kids. You want to make sure they are enjoying the sport and more than anything that you love them and you have got their backs. When you can build good relationships with your athletes, that’s when they are really going to work for you. You don’t want them to work for you because they’re afraid to disappoint you. You want them to work for because they want to do their best and succeed.

Q: What have been your most difficult coaching moments?

Holmes: I put a lot of pressure on myself to be successful. I guess in a lot of ways people measure success with wins and losses. A lot of times and we’ve had a lot of seasons where we’ve lost more than we’ve won. Sometimes I take that to heart and I feel like it’s a reflection of how I prepare my athletes. Sometimes, that’s the most difficult part. I think my goal is to prepare guys not only for the mat, but to prepare them for life. You’re going to have ups and downs, so I sometimes have to reflect on that.

… Sometimes when kids don’t come back to wrestling, that can be frustrating or disappointing. Again, I take it personally a lot. Some kids would rather work than wrestle and I see it a lot more often.

Q: What have been your favorite coaching moments?

Holmes: I’ve had a lot of favorite coaching moments. Usually they involve winning a championship, especially when you can win them when you are down and out or the cards are stacked against you. I’d say in 2017 when we won the conference championship. I just had a good, solid core of seniors. We had like five or six seniors that year that we just great kids. They were hard workers and we just seemed to peak at the right time.

The year before, we were last in the conference or definitely at the bottom. We actually had a slow start, too. We weren’t doing great, but once we took second at Mayhem [at Millbrook] for whatever reason we just started winning our events. We won like our last three competitions. We won the Get Your Bell Rung Tournament. There was a five-team dual that we won. It seemed like we were just clicking at the right time. We ended up winning the conference that year and that was the year where everyone was super competitive and close. All of the teams were really close in nature and we just wrestled a great tournament. We had this thing where Drake sang, “Started from the bottom, now we’re here.” We just kind of rode that wave — being on the bottom and rising to the top. That’s always fun and your kids get excited when things like that happen. I think that’s going to stick with a lot of our guys.

I think Brandon Bye (a former Woodgrove student) pinned the Woodgrove kid (Derek Shockey), who used to be his workout partner. That was a kid he never beat in practice. That was a kid that always had his spot and he ended up pinning that kid with a headlock in the [conference] finals. I don’t know if that was the match that necessarily put us over the edge, but that definitely was something that helped us win. It was definitely super close (Millbrook won with 181 points, while Woodgrove was second with 175) between the top three or four teams. That was a cool moment for sure.

— Compiled by Walt Moody

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