By Dennis Chase
Special for Second Half
FRANKFORT – When Frankfort captured its first MHSAA Division 4 District wrestling championship in 22 years last Wednesday, Jaime Smith was asked if another first had been achieved that night.
Was she the first woman in MHSAA history to coach a boys wrestling team to a District title?
"I said, 'I'm going to assume so,'" Smith replied.
It's a milestone that might be hard to verify. If it's not a first, it's certainly rare, according to the MHSAA.
Frankfort's feat under Smith might have come as a surprise to some, but not to those at the school.
High school principal Matt Stapleton called Smith “a quality coach and a quality person," who knows how to get the best out of her students and athletes.
“She’s really passionate about wrestling, about family, about teaching and working with kids,” he said. “Those are the type of (attributes) you need to build a program.”
Frankfort defeated Fife Lake Forest Area and Traverse City St. Francis to claim the District. Freshman Kody Michel's win at 152 pounds decided the outcome in the 42-36 finale with St. Francis.
The championship added to what's been quite a winter for boys athletic teams at the small Class D school. Earlier Wednesday, the Frankfort-Benzie Central co-op squad won the Lake Michigan Ski Conference title. Two days later, the state-ranked basketball team inched closer to the Northwest Conference championship by beating Kingsley to improve its record to 13-1.
Such success is not lost on junior wrestler and two-time Regional qualifier Daymian Tabbert.
"We had to do our part," he said.
Smith, who has an extensive wrestling background, took on the task of resurrecting the program four years ago. Frankfort previously participated in a co-op with Onekama. When that dissolved, the Panthers did not have enough wrestlers to field a team.
In fact, when Smith was hired by the district in 2010, she volunteered to help the school's lone tournament wrestler, Jacob Chappell, who was training at Benzie Central and competing as an individual. The following season Smith was named the coach. She started with six wrestlers that first season, and now has 11, including senior captain Brandon Coxe, who has been in the program all four years. The District crown was the exclamation point of his varsity career.
"It was a very special (night) for the entire team," he said. "We all worked very hard for it. We (Frankfort) haven't done anything like this in a long time. We've come a long way."
Coxe (171), Michel, Tabbert, Ben Tiesworth (112), Isaac Dean (130) and Levi Hubbard (140) were all double winners in the District. Michel, a Regional qualifier at 145, provided the most dramatic moment. Smith moved him up a weight class against St. Francis, knowing it would be the swing match of the night. Given little time to think about it, Michel delivered.
"You need enough time to prepare yourself, but not enough time to scare yourself," Smith said.
Perhaps the day's biggest decision came prior to the matches. Frankfort had a snow day, and conditions were so iffy that the athletic department considered not putting the team bus on the road to St. Francis, a near 40-mile drive.
"Fife Lake was going so we would have automatically forfeited had we not gone," Smith said.
After some discussion, the team was allowed to travel. And, as luck would have it, the storm system, which had produced whiteouts earlier in the day, cleared out.
The District win that night created a buzz at school the following morning. Team members, accustomed to anonymity, suddenly became the center of attention, receiving congratulatory praises from students and staff.
"It was a cool experience," Tabbert, who is 27-12, said.
It was an experience Smith hopes to build off as she develops the varsity – there is no feeder program in the junior high.
"I've already had two kids talk to me about coming out (for the team next season)," she said. "That's (District title) monumental. It will make recruiting easier."
Prior to arriving at Frankfort, Smith coached girls and boys soccer at Traverse City Central. She led the girls to two District titles. Smith was a four-year starter and captain of the soccer team at Olivet College.
But wrestling has always been part of her life.
"I grew up (in Alpena) with five brothers," she said. "We wrestled freestyle on Saturday, folkstyle on Sunday. That's what we did since we were old enough to get across the mat."
She eventually wrestled for the high school team until she made the decision to focus on soccer.
In college, she got back into wrestling, competing in open freestyle tournaments. She also started officiating youth tournaments.
It was at Olivet where she met her husband Ethan Smith, who was a four-time MHSAA Finals wrestling qualifier at Traverse City Central.
“People ask me, 'What's your favorite sport?'" Jaime Smith said. "I love soccer, but I was successful at it because of the discipline and characteristics I learned from wrestling."
It was a no-brainer, she said, when Stapleton approached her about the wrestling job, even though it's been almost exclusively a male-dominated position.
"It felt pretty natural," she said. "Wrestling is in my blood, and there's no way I was going to let (the program) die.
"Were there concerns about me being a female? Absolutely. But my boys, my gentlemen, make that really easy. There's a respect, trust and understanding between us. I have never had an issue with one of my athletes. People always ask, 'How do you make that happen?' It's on them. They allow it to be comfortable and appropriate."
She's had a harder time convincing others, though. At coaches meetings, and even at matches, she’s been mistaken as a mother of a wrestler, and not the coach. Another time, after a match, the opposing wrestler came over to shake the Frankfort coach's hand and walked right past Smith.
"He was looking for a male coach," Smith said.
"But it doesn't bother me," she added. "All that matters (on the team) is the respect that we have between each other."
Smith believes there will be more women following her path. For proof, she points to the increased participation of girls in the sport.
"When I was wrestling (in youth and high school tournaments), I was one of the few and far between," she said. "Now, especially in the lower weights, you can show up at a tournament and create a girls bracket if it's a round-robin. I hope, if they're qualified, you'll see more of it in the future."
As for the immediate future, Frankfort will be the decided underdog when it competes in Wednesday's Team Regional at Leroy Pine River. The Panthers open with Charlevoix. Although numbers are improving, Frankfort still voids three weight classes.
The Panthers will have two wrestlers, Tabbert and Michel, in the Individual Regional on Saturday at Rogers City. Both are underclassmen, which bodes well for the Panthers next season.
"If you look at it, numbers (in wrestling) seem to be waning in northern Michigan," Stapleton said. "But certainly, we're gaining momentum."
For Smith, that’s encouraging.
"It's exciting to be talking about the wrestling program again," she said.
Dennis Chase worked 32 years as a sportswriter at the Traverse City Record-Eagle, including as sports editor from 2000-14. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Emmet counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Frankfort's Daymian Tabbert wrestles under the watchful eye of coach Jaime Smith, top right-hand corner. (Middle) Smith confers with Ben Tiesworth during a match. (Below) Frankfort poses with its first District title trophy in 22 years. (Photos courtesy of the Frankfort wrestling program.)