Chugach Eagle alums come home to carry on wrestling tradition

Monday, April 23, 2018 - 14:16
  • Chugach Eagles Wrestling Club coaches and alumni (at rear, clockwise from left) Dan Bailey, Nolan McBryde and Cayle Byers keep their eye on Daniel Niebles. (Photo by Rashae Ophus Johnson for the Star)
  • Grant Sullivan, Zack Baldwin and Nolan McBryde are seen left to right in this photo from a March 10, 2005, Star article after each took first place in the Tanana Middle School wrestling tournament in Fairbanks. Sullivan and McBryde are now coaches for the Chugach Eagles Wrestling Club. (Star file photo)
  • Chugach Eagles Wrestling Club coach and alumni Grant Sullivan encourages a wrestler during a timeout. (Photo by Rashae Ophus Johnson for the Star)

Wrestling often comes in last to mainstream sports in most places, and not just in alphabetical lists. The crowds, funding and press coverage tend to trail more popular sports like hockey and football.

But in Chugiak and Eagle River, wrestling boasts a rich history and a thriving community rooted in the Chugach Eagles Wrestling Club, which has cultivated a line of Alaska state champions and Division I collegiate wrestlers dating back a quarter of a century.

Several of these homegrown wrestling standouts are back on the mats developing the next generation of Chugiak and Eagle River wrestlers. Head coaches Dan Bailey and Grant Sullivan grew up grappling in the Chugach Eagles club.

After a spate of major injuries stymied his wrestling career three years in at Southern Illinois University, Sullivan had only recently returned home when some neighborhood boys knocked on his parents’ door. They were selling raffle tickets to raise money for the Chugach Eagles Wrestling Club.

“My sons were Chugach Eagles!” his mom exclaimed, encouraging the boys to come back over to meet her son Grant and talk wrestling.

The boys returned to practice boasting of the neighborhood brothers who were big names in Alaska wrestling. Word of Sullivan’s return spread quickly.

Coach Lance Bodeen, a fixture of 17 years in Alaska wrestling, had mentored Sullivan to his first of three state titles (2007, 2008, 2009) as the assistant coach for Chugiak High School. When Sullivan moved back to Alaska to finish college, Bodeen had just begun volunteering as a coach for his son’s Mirror Lake Middle School wrestling team.

The official MLMS wrestling coach, band director Travis Harrington, was sorely outnumbered by nearly 100 wrestlers comprising four teams. Bodeen recruited Sullivan to coach the MLMS wrestlers with him.

“I always thought Grant would be a teacher. He’s always worked well with kids,” Bodeen said. “Even in high school he helped with the program. He was always there.”

“I was scared but also excited,” Sullivan said of Bodeen’s invitation to coach the middle school team. “I’d helped coach the younger kids before but had never been an actual coach who was there consistently.”

Sullivan coached the middle schoolers five nights a week from October into December. As ASD’s winter season passed into the club spring season, Sullivan continued coaching those wrestlers in the Chugach Eagles club, right up through the state championships the end of April.

Three nights a week and nearly every Saturday, Sullivan volunteered his time and experience coaching the club while pursuing an accounting degree at University of Alaska Anchorage.

“It’s just something I like to do,” said Sullivan, who graduated from Chugiak High in 2010. “I’m more of a child at heart than an adult. I can get the kids motivated just because I’ve been there recently, I’m young.”

Coach Dan Bailey, a 2004 graduate of CHS, is a little older. He and his big brother Ed Bailey, a 2002-2003 state champion for Chugiak High School, were among the first wrestlers in the Chugach Eagles club when it was formed in 1992.

Ed Bailey, who as a high schooler coached Grant Sullivan’s wrestling team at Mirror Lake Middle School, continued coaching in the club long after graduating. For Dan, it was the birth of his son that inspired him to get involved with the wrestling club again as a coach.

“Wrestling means a lot to me as a dad. Even though I wasn’t an amazing wrestler, what it did for me mentally and physically and how it prepared me for everyday life, like difficult times and dealing with losses — that’s what I got out of it,” said Bailey, whose son Tanner now is wrestling his second season. “Being able to pass that on and keep kids motivated to keep wrestling to the point where they can start seeing that — it’s an important part of my life.”

Last year one of Alaska’s most accomplished wrestlers, CHS legend Cayle Byers, reappeared in town as the head coach at his alma mater. After earning two Alaska state titles, Byers capped his All-American collegiate wrestling career with a third place national finish for NCAA Division I powerhouse Oklahoma State University in 2012.

In 2016 Byers qualified for the U.S. Olympic team trials in a formidable weight class that included eventual gold medalist Kyle Snyder.

Byers’ wrestling career came full circle in 2017 when Bodeen drafted Byers to replace him as head coach of the Chugach Eagles Wrestling Club, where Byers started wrestling at age 6 and continued through high school.

“It’s been awesome having Grant there, and Cayle. They’re such a huge asset to the club; we couldn’t be luckier,” Dan Bailey said. “It’s so important to get that collegiate level of expertise. The stuff those guys bring back to the club is super valuable. Seeing the things Cayle Byers brings to the room — that’s next-level stuff.”

Three-time CHS state champion and former Eagles grappler Nolan McBryde, who wrestled for University of Oklahoma, joins his former teammates at club tournaments to help coach the more than 100 Chugach Eagles wrestlers ages 5 to 18 competing in matches that continue nonstop all day.

The infusion of such talented wrestlers into the club’s coaching lineup has created a bittersweet opportunity for Bodeen. During wrestling seasons he wakes at 3:30 a.m. in order to conclude his workday as an accountant in time for club practices, in a season that clashes with his busiest time (tax season) at work. With two kids of his own now active in several other sports, Bodeen is stepping back from his passion for coaching wrestling.

He coached Byers, Sullivan and McBryde in the club all through high school. To have those three proteges and the Bailey brothers all come home to the club and coach together, ushered in an exciting and proud time for the Chugach Eagles Wrestling Club.

“Those kids wrestled for me with the Eagles and in high school. That was probably the best team I ever coached (in 2007, including Byers, McBryde and Sullivan),” said Bodeen, who came to CHS after the Baileys had graduated. “We have nine state championships in that (wrestling) room, and four Division I athletes. That’s a pretty awesome coaching lineup.”

Byers is now working on the Slope and Ed Bailey working in Florida, but both return to help coach the club when they can. Bodeen will coach his final season of middle school wrestling next year, with Bailey and Sullivan currently serving as head coaches of the club.

“It’s been a good run. Those kids were just really good kids — great athletes, and their parents were fantastic,” Bodeen said of the club alumni-turned-coaches.

In Chugiak and Eagle River, love for wrestling runs deep through the club.

“Wrestling is just a sport where you give back. It gives you so much in life. It gave them a heck of an opportunity in life, and they ran with it,” Bodeen said. “I think it’s pretty unique in the wrestling community. Those kids just give back.”

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