The Norwalk state placer had just shook hands at a summer camp with Chris Phillips, and couldn’t believe it.
“I was like, ‘This guy is famous,’” Phillips said. “It was awesome.”
When the junior wrestling standout met Chris Estep, it brought out a different kind of awestruck feeling.
“When I first locked up with him, it was almost like, ‘Who is this freak of nature and how did we get so lucky to have him here? They are a huge influence in the room this year,” Phillips said of Chris Phillips and Estep. “Honestly, no one would be where they are right now this season without those two.”
The case can be made for Chris Phillips as the greatest upper-weight wrestler to ever step on a mat in Ohio wrestling history. One of 29 four-time state champions in Ohio, the 2011 Monroeville graduate was 193-1 in high school, helping lead the Eagles to the Division III state team championship in 2010.
Meanwhile, Estep is the only state finalist in the history of Western Reserve High School. The 2006 grad also competed at Mid-American Conference powerhouse Kent State University, and was a MAC placer at 174 pounds.
Together, the two former area standouts find themselves as assistant coaches in the Norwalk High School wrestling room — with two unique parallels. Chris Phillips has discovered how much he enjoys coaching. After enduring an injury-riddled career, Estep is simply happy to give back.
And one doesn’t have to look far to find the benefits.
“When you come to practice each day, you know you’re getting something out of it — and it’s not going to be a normal practice,” said Alec Maloney, another Norwalk state qualifier from 2018. “You’re really going to learn something and get better from it.”
Hooked on coaching
Chris Phillips can’t say he envisioned himself in the chair, or off to the side of the mat screaming instructions.
But wrestling has been a part of his life for as long as he can remember.
“I’ve started to learn that I really like coaching a lot, too,” Phillips said. “I live in Norwalk and went to school here when I was real young. I know the school and enjoy the kids and the coaches … it’s a good time and really rewarding for me.”
Phillips said he has enjoyed the aspect of watching a kid apply something he taught him on the mat. However, he also has a switch inside of him he’s unable to turn off.
“It’s a good feeling — but usually there is always something I see they can improve,” he said. “It’s very rewarding — but then it makes you want to get them even better and get their technique even sharper.
“I guess it makes me want to pick them apart more and make them the best wrestler they can possibly be,” he added. “It’s that same mentality I had when I competed. Staying intense and figuring out how hard you can push yourself — but refine and focus on your technique at the same time.”
Norwalk head coach Frank Staley said possibly the biggest benefit of Chris Phillips in the wrestling room every day is that mentality of being a year-round grappler.
“I don’t think these kids understand what type of level he competed at and the type of dedication that he had,” Staley said. “We have seasonal wrestlers … our three state guys are also football players — and are very good players who have to dedicate a lot of time there to get to the caliber they are. Some are younger kids who haven’t yet put the time into it like Chris has.
“I think Chris can be the bridge that puts Norwalk wrestling at a different plateau,” he added. “He’s already got kids wanting to wrestle for him in the summer and he’s ran some practices and open mats when football was going on. It’ll come, but it’s never been the norm at Norwalk. We’ve never had that year-round philosophy.”
Eight years removed from reaching the pinnacle of the sport in high school, Phillips is now coaching kids who were as young as six years old, and as old as 12 when he dominated at Monroeville.
Do the majority of the kids even know what he did?
“Some of them did and some didn’t, but that’s honestly not too big of a deal for me whether they knew or not,” Phillips said. “I know some kids look up to me, and if that helps them that’s great. But I want to show them how they can get better through the techniques I’m showing them.
“They can get to know me that way, and when they know about my past as a four-time state champion, they can start buying in a little more,” he added. “I’m not going to brag about it. They’ll find out sooner or later.”
Giving something back
Estep was extremely talented in both high school and college. However, each time, injuries always got in the way.
After falling 11-7 in the 160-pound state championship match in Division III as a junior, Estep was 39-3 as a senior at Western Reserve when he broke his ankle in the sectional tournament.
He was denied the chance to get back to state. At Kent State, injuries again shortchanged him.
“I try to preach to them to not take anything for granted,” Estep said. “Next year or the next match is not guaranteed for them. You never know. So I try to keep that message so they keep working hard.
“I just like being able to give back to the sport a little bit,” he added. “I know I’ve had a lot of people in my life that got me into the sport and helped me fall in love with it. I just want to be that person for some of these kids.”
Like Chris Phillips, Estep said there is a level of gratification in seeing the progress a kid makes on the mat.
“It’s satisfying and uplifting as a coach to see a kid progress,” he said. “Whether that’s one small thing that your best kids are learning something new, or a breakthrough for a kid who is less experienced and something finally clicks.”
Maloney said Estep knows every move that is coming, and brings a certain level of toughness to practice.
“That guy is so strong, just a powerhouse,” he said. “You don’t know what you’re going to get out of him. He’s tremendous, and extremely smart.”
Both assistants find themselves speaking of potential when asked to describe the current Norwalk wrestling team.
Ethan Hernandez placed third at state a year ago, while Phillips was sixth and Maloney won a match in Columbus. All three have shown similar trajectories this season.
Heavyweight Tche Leroux is 23-5 and was a district placer at Monroeville last season. Darion Smith (170) is 21-10, and Ethan Phillips (152) is also having a solid year among others.
“Honestly, I’ve always felt like Norwalk has had that potential, but it just needs the right mindset,” Chris Phillips said. “From afar, I always felt like physically, Norwalk has been there. But the right mentality was needed.
“There is potential for them to get even better than what they already are,” he added. “And I feel like that’s what I’m here for … to make them the best wrestler they can possibly be.”
Staley agrees, and sees Norwalk headed in the right direction after perhaps the toughest schedule the program has ever had this season.
“It’s going to take a ton of work still, but those two have pointed this thing in the right direction,” Staley said. “They make you go hard … they will push a kid right to their limit.
“You are never going to face anything in any tournament or match better than those two right there,” he added. “And they’re not making more money or have kids in the program. Nothing is going to change their lives by being here every day, other than the fact that they are contributing to something they are proud of.”
Gabe Phillips added that the biggest contributions from Estep and Chris Phillips may not even come from practices each day.
“They both have jobs but are here,” he said. “They are in our corners every match offering support and technique. Above their accomplishments and pushing us all the time, they are supportive people.”