By Maurice Patton
A.J. Villarreal, who has coached four different sports since arriving at Centennial in February 2020, has been named wrestling coach at Independence.
The 25-year-old Illinois native is set to succeed Bryan Youngsma at the helm of the Eagles’ program, Youngsma having served on an interim basis following Jared Grindstaff’s resignation last summer.
“It’s definitely a surreal feeling,” the Wisconsin-La Crosse graduate said. “I didn’t think I’d accelerate through the ranks this quickly, but I’m glad I did. I’m definitely excited about it.”
After playing football and wrestling through his high school career at Lyons Township (Ill.), Villarreal pursued both at the college level. However, injuries prevented him from getting on the mat at UW-La Crosse.
Upon his December 2019 graduation, his job search eventually brought him to Middle Tennessee.
“I was initially hired as a teacher, and worked my way into athletics,” he said. “I just showed up at stuff, and I got brought onto both (football and wrestling) staffs.”
Villarreal assisted with the Cougars’ defensive secondary last fall as well as with the wrestling program, which advanced 152-pounder Alex Ables to the state tournament earlier this year. Additionally, he established a bass fishing club at the school, and works with the sprinters on the Centennial track team.
“Coach Villarreal is going to be a great asset to the Independence community, not just the wrestling team,” Centennial wrestling coach Philip Pelkey said. “Not only does he have a ton of knowledge in wrestling, but also does a great job of forming relationships with his athletes.
“I have no doubt that he is going to do a great job over there and continue to build on the success that Indy has had over the years. We hate to see him go, but wish him all the best.”
Picking up where Youngsma — and Grindstaff before him – left off is the expectation awaiting Villarreal.
“He just loves working with kids,” Independence principal Niki Patton said. “I think he’s an ‘all-in’ guy, based on the people I’ve been talking to, willing to help whenever and wherever he can.”
Stepping in after Grindstaff accepted an administrative position at Mill Creek Middle School, Youngsma led Independence to the Class AAA state dual sectionals and coached three Eagles – Russell Ford, Tanner Willett and Gabriel Hall – to individual region titles.
“When Coach Grindstaff resigned last year, it was in mid-June,” Patton said. “Because of the timing, most of our teaching vacancies were already filled by that point. We approached Coach Youngsma to give us one year so that we could be able to find the right candidate once we had more teaching positions available.
“He’ll still be here teaching and will likely still be involved with the program. We’re very appreciative of him stepping into that for us temporarily.”
Villarreal compared the situation at Independence favorably to the climate in which he grew up.
“I gravitated toward it because of the culture that’s been built – from kids club, through middle school up into high school,” he said. “It reminded me a lot of what I had in Illinois, where the kids club is almost a direct feeder to the high school.
“For me, wrestling and football go hand-in-hand. I’m hoping I can get more athletes doing both sports and better both programs.”