Jan. 24—Caleb Baker knew he had to change the culture of the Westwood wrestling program when he took over two years ago.
It was a program that was losing kids on a yearly basis, qualifying just two wrestlers the year before he took over. He wanted to make a difference in the lives of the wrestlers that remained, and welcome new ones with open arms.
"It's all about personal relationships with wrestlers," Baker said. "It's a hard line because they have to know that I'm the boss of this room, but I also get it, we're having fun. I've been through the same thing. I want to make sure every kid is known and feels welcome."
Baker has taken some of what he learned from his former coaches growing up and has applied them to his style today.
Growing up with an older brother in a single-mother home, his coaches were like a father to him. He played football and wrestled under legendary coach Larry Fetkenheir at Cactus High School in Glendale. Following high school, he played a year of football at Glendale Community College before entering the work force for seven years.
He returned to school and wrestled for Arizona Christian University while also taking a job under Fetkenheir as an assistant coach at Cactus.
Making the move to the East Valley was a big step for Baker in his career. He now teaches at Westwood and is the head freshman football coach, along with leading the wrestling program. The discipline he learned from Fetkenheir is one of the most influential tendencies he picked up. He also picked up the act of getting to know every wrestler on a personal level.
That's more important to him than wins and losses.
"I just want to make sure kids have a good experience," Baker said. "I was talking to one of my assistants about it. We're assisting them through their athletic experience. Every kid matters. Whether you're the best wrestler or not, you matter."
Part of the new culture at Westwood involves having pride in the school. Wrestlers are asked to always wear school colors at practice.
In the fall when varsity football players wore their jerseys on game days, Baker made the freshman wear orange as a show of support.
The new mindset and sense of community within the program quickly spread. As a result, participation numbers have tripled since Baker's arrival on campus.
Wrestlers like senior Hiram Baez said it's been a welcoming change.
"Coach Baker is more strict, which I think is a good thing," Baez said. "He's the kind of coach that will get on us for little things like grades or coming to school. I think we needed that."
With more wrestlers has come more responsibility and leadership from Baez and other veterans in the room. In total, four wrestlers qualified for state last year out of Westwood. Baez was one of them.
Baker expects him to once again lead the way as a senior, mentoring the newer wrestlers along the way so they understand the type of dedication it takes to get to that position.
The team as a whole has had more success with veterans leading by example. Westwood placed second at the Warrior Invite, a historic meet Baker brought back this year to the delight of parents and the community.
Now Baez is hoping for more success as the season begins to wind down. The increase in numbers, he believes, will help him accomplish bigger goals this season.
"More bodies in the room always means you're going to get better looks," Baez said. "Even if they aren't the best, having them in there and always improving will help you become a better wrestler."
The Westwood wrestling program has become a family. Baker leads the way with his fiancé leading social media efforts. Siblings are beginning to show interest in following in the footsteps of those who came before them, and parents are backing the program through the booster club to raise money for necessities.
Baker said it's been special to see the impact he's been able to make so far at Westwood. But more than that, he's happy the wrestlers have accepted a new challenge and embraced the culture he set out to establish.
"To see the success, it shows me I'm where I'm supposed to be and that I'm doing the right thing," Baker said. "It brings a lot of joy. As an athlete, you want to win. As a coach, seeing a kid win their first match, it's awesome. I appreciate everyone, from the community to the admin. It's been great."
Have an interesting story? Contact Zach Alvira at (480)898-5630 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ZachAlvira.