Prep legend brings swagger to River Ridge

Jimmy Belleville, a 4-time state champion, prepares Hawks aiming for state titles in his first year as head coach

mwochnick@theolympian.comFebruary 18, 2014 

In his first year as River Ridge head coach, four-time state champion Jimmy Belleville, center, has guided three wrestlers to the Mat Classic, an accomplishment the school hasn’t seen since 2008.

STEVE BLOOM/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

LACEY — The Tacoma Dome, home to the Mat Classic since 1989, is where Jimmy Belleville achieved greatness from 2006-09.

Five years ago this week, Belleville, then a senior at Black Hills High School, did what only four other Washington high school wrestlers at the time had done: He became a four-time Mat Classic champion.

He needed just 47 seconds in the Class 2A 160-pound title match to pin Burlington-Edison’s Corey Kleppe, win his fourth state title — he also won championships at 103, 125 and 145 pounds — and cement his place among the state’s all-time greats.

At the time, Belleville joined in an elite group of wrestlers – R.A. Long’s Pat Connors (1991-94), Tonasket’s Martin Mitchell (1998-2001), Lake Stevens’ Burke Barnes (1999-2002), and Kelso’s Brandon Sitch (2003-06). Five wrestlers have accomplished the feat since.

Belleville’s college wrestling career was cut short due to injuries. He is 23 now and giving back to the sport as River Ridge High’s first-year wrestling coach.

This weekend, he hopes to guide three of his Hawks wrestlers – Elijah Camacho (160 pounds), Jacob Zocco (145) and Daniel Montesa (132) – to a familiar accomplishment for Belleville, but a first for those three: a state title.

LEGACY ON THE MAT

Who is Jimmy Belleville?

That’s what Montesa, a senior who is the fifth-ranked 2A wrestler at 132 pounds, and many of his teammates wondered when Belleville was hired this offseason to be the school’s third wrestling coach in four years.

“I started Googling him,” Montesa said.

Yes, Belleville was young and had no prior head-coaching experience, yet those familiar with high school wrestling in Washington and South Sound know his accomplishments.

Along with his four state titles, Belleville compiled a 166-8 record at Black Hills and wrestled for two seasons at the University of Wyoming.

Given Belleville’s past success, Montesa said he soaks in all the knowledge and takes advantage of every opportunity to learn what he can as Mat Classic nears.

“He knows everything in the book,” Montesa said. “He knows what’s going to happen and what to expect. It’s nice to have that. I fully trust him.”

Montesa used Belleville’s history as an in-school recruiting tool to get wrestlers to turn out.

It worked, too; the Hawks had nearly 30 wrestlers, the largest team this year’s seniors have been a part of.

WINDING COLLEGE PATH

When Belleville packed for Laramie, Wyo., to wrestle for the Cowboys of the Mountain West Conference in 2009, he was the area’s first wrestler to compete at the NCAA Division I level since former Elma standout and current W.F. West coach Jamie Rakevich wrestled at Oregon State.

Belleville’s success at Wyoming was instantaneous.

He was a two-time NCAA West Regionals participant and had a 54-25 record wrestling in the 149- and 157-pound weight classes. He chose to leave Wyoming for Northern Colorado after the 2010-11 season, but never wrestled in a varsity match.

He then went to West Lafayette, Ind., with the plan of competing for Big Ten Conference member Purdue, but his career with the Boilermakers never materialized.

In between were lower-body injuries – five surgeries in all, including on his knee and ankles – that took their toll and led to a shortened college career with two years of eligibility left on the table.

ATHLETE TURNED COACH

Back home in South Sound and living in Shelton, Belleville has hopes for a career in law enforcement, but coaching and teaching young wrestlers was important, too, and that’s why he came to River Ridge.

The school doesn’t have a rich tradition in wrestling; its success has traditionally been on the hardwood, but Belleville is changing the culture.

“We want to build kids as people first,” Belleville said. “Once we get started on that, we can build an athlete, hopefully. You have to start somewhere and hopefully, we can start their personality.”

Belleville also brought in what he calls the “most experienced coaching staff around” to River Ridge: two ex-Black Hills teammates – Joel McGill, who won a state title at 119 pounds in 2007, and Tyler Michaelis, who placed third at 152 in 2009.

Also on board is Marques Ford, who won a pair of state titles (140, 152) for River Ridge in 2008 and 2010, as well as Anthony Thurgood, a California transplant who placed seventh at state in high school.

That’s seven state titles and multiple state placings between the bunch.

“You don’t get much of a coaching staff like this anywhere else,” McGill said.

Added Belleville: “We have four head coaches, and I’m just the paperwork guy.”

Turning to coaching was natural for Mark Grindstaff, Belleville’s high school coach. Grindstaff retired from coaching after Belleville’s senior year following 36 years, including his final six at Black Hills.

“I love the fact that Jimmy feels that it’s part of his calling to give back to the sport,” Grindstaff said. “I let him know that’s why I did it.”

Belleville hopes to build a reputation similar to that of Grindstaff’s.

“Us five coaches,” Belleville said, “we want to build a program here and make a name for ourselves. We want to put River Ridge on the map for something good.”

GUNNING FOR TITLES

For the first-year staff’s Mat Classic-bound wrestlers – seniors Camacho and Montesa as well as Zocco, a junior – it marks the first time since 2008 that River Ridge sends three wrestlers to the Tacoma Dome.

While Camacho is Class 2A’s top-ranked wrestler at 160 pounds, Montesa, who didn’t make it out of regionals a year ago after going to Mat Classic in 2012, has extra motivation to end his career on a high note, and said he feels Belleville and the staff can make it happen.

“This season, I came out with a little fire trying to prove myself that I’m good enough to win state,” he said. “I have the staff behind me.”

Meg Wochnick: 360-754-5473 mwochnick@theolympian.com @MegWochnick theolympian.com/southsoundsports

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