By Kim Staudinger
Amid the swarms of kids as young as 4 years of age, the Chinook Sugarbeeters varsity wrestling team completes its practice.
These young kids are the future of the Sugarbeeters.
For five consecutive years, the AAU wrestling program in Chinook has had more than 100 youngsters participating. They range in age from preschool to high school. Typically 40 to 50 grade school-age children are involved, 30 to 40 junior high kids and 15 high schoolers.
Perry Miller has coached AAU in Chinook for 20 years and has overseen three of his own children in the program. Miller, the Blaine County justice of the peace and Chinook city judge, also coaches the Chinook High School team along with Adam Tilleman. This is the seventh year the two have been with the high school program.
Miller's son, Howie, came through the AAU program and is now a sophomore on the varsity team. Howie's older brothers, Tony and Josh, also wrestled for their father in the freestyle program. Younger brother Mike, a seventh-grader, also is involved. Miller has eight children, six of whom are boys.
While Tony and Josh both were good wrestlers Josh was an All-Stater Miller said Howie brings something more to wrestling a true love of the sport.
"It's fun to coach Howie," Miller said. "Howie is very committed, very determined. His work ethic is impeccable and he has great skills. He takes it very seriously."
Along with Howie is another sophomore star, Eric Hinebauch. Both Howie and Eric have been with Miller since they were 4 and 5 years old, respectively. Miller said the two are finally reaping the rewards of hard work for so many years, over nearly their entire lives.
But the rewards didn't always come easy for Howie and Eric. In fact, both admitted they'd thought about quitting a few years ago.
"I didn't like it at first," Howie said. "I really wanted to quit in the seventh grade. I wasn't doing so well in the fifth and sixth grade. I kept getting my butt kicked."
Howie said his father told him he didn't care if he quit but warned him he might regret it. His dad also told him that he had to be in a sport because he didn't want Howie sitting around the house after school with nothing to do. Howie didn't like basketball, so he chose to continue wrestling.
Howie has 38 wins and 12 losses on the season. Last season Howie and Eric broke the record for most pins in the season with 27. The previous record was 26. Howie also broke the single-season record for wins this season with 38, previously set at 37.
Eric, who has a record of 36-8 so far this season, said his parents made him continue wrestling, and now it has finally paid off.
"I about quit in the seventh grade," Eric said. "My dad and mom said to just try it for another year. I stuck it out for two years and started to improve and now I think I have a good shot of being in the top three or four at state."
Eric said he was "terrible" when he first started wrestling but was lucky enough to make it to the state tournament in AAU. State was a learning experience for him even though he struggled at first. Eric eventually moved up to the top three or four in the freestyle ranks.
During the football season this year, both admitted to thinking more about wrestling than football. Both played on the high school football team.
"I couldn't wait until wrestling," Eric said. "I feel like I can dominate more in wrestling than in any other sport."
Miller said he believes thoughts of quitting are natural for all athletes. He knows all of his boys have gone through such periods.
"It comes with the territory," Miller said. "I think they all come to that. They think, Is this really worth it?' Every kid has those crossroads."
Jimmy, one of Miller's younger sons, came to him this year and said he didn't want to wrestle. Much to Jimmy's surprise, his father was OK with that. Another of Perry's younger sons, Mike, came to him and said he wanted to play basketball as well as wrestle.
Howie said wrestling for his father has its challenges. He gets more from it since it makes him work harder.
"He's kind of an inspiration," Howie said. "I want to live up to his standards. He's set some goals for me as I have for myself."
Miller laughed when asked about that. "I don't have any for him," Miller said. "That's the beauty of it, he thinks I have goals for him."
But, he added, "As a dad coach, I hold Howie to a higher standard. As an athlete with a dad coach, he probably holds himself to a higher standard." Miller said Howie takes the time to ask questions after practice and will work out and lift weights more, which makes coaching him much easier.
Miller isn't a father only to Howie. While a few members of the team are fortunate enough to have both parents at home, a lot of the kids come from a single parent background. Being a father figure is not something he works on, he said, but is perhaps how he is perceived. After all, the boys are with him for 2 hours each day at practice as well as during the weekends at out-of-town meets.
Miller said he hopes he can instill integrity, honesty, trust and a great work ethic in them.
"Any kid I coach knows it. If you are honest with me, I will go to the ends of the earth for you," Miller said. "Once you forfeit that trust, I will still go to bat for you, but you have to work to get that back."
Miller said he can't think of any kid he has coached in 20 years who has violated that trust.
Two ingredients are key to being successful in coaching first and foremost, love, followed by discipline, Miller said. He will be the first one to give his kids a hug, but will also be the first one to chew them out if necessary.
Etched in the minds of all the Chinook wrestlers is a saying carved into a piece of wood. The saying "Champions are made at practice" hangs on the wall of the practice room as a reminder that hard work wins titles.
"Whatever they want to get out of it, they will get out of it," Coach Tilleman said. "The more they do, the more they will get. They really want it and they know they can do it."
The sign came from Ray Reid, who coached in Chinook for 50 years and who also coached Miller and Tilleman in high school.
"He drilled it into every Chinook wrestler that champions are made in practice," Miller said.
The Chinook wrestling team will be going to the Northern B Divisional Tournament this Friday and Saturday in Cut Bank. Four seniors, Thomas Maddox, Danny Skoyen, Kevin Elias and Ben Parsons, one junior, Clayton Parsons, and seven sophomores, Kris Parsons, Chris Thompson, Howie Miller, Jake Phillips, Eric Hinebauch, Troy Kuntz and Jeremy Painter.
Look for next week's feature on the Chester volleyball team.
Editor's note: This is the second part of a new weekly feature focusing on Hi-Line teams.