Nearhood returns to where career began

Willie Nearhood

Stratford’s Willie Nearhood (second from right) is one of 14 wrestling coaches in state history to reach the 400-win mark for a career.

A little known fact about Willie Nearhood is his coaching career began at Cross High School.

Nearhood, just out of The Citadel in the mid-1990s, spent 1996-98 at CHS before beginning what has turned into a hall of fame career at Stratford High School.

Nearhood just finished his 20th year on Crowfield Boulevard and is one of just a few wrestling coaches in state history to top the 400-victory mark. He also helped out in football on the sub-varsity level.

He admits he probably shocked some people by announcing he was leaving but it’s time for a new challenge. He’s headed back to Cross to essentially build the Trojans’ wrestling program from scratch. Last winter, the Trojans didn’t field a full squad and fizzled out before the season was over.

Former Stratford state champion Nick Young, an assistant the last two years, takes over for Nearhood.

“I felt like the timing was right,” Nearhood said. “I know that we brought in a good guy that will not let the program fall. I didn’t want to step up away unless the program was in good hands. Nick will do a great job. When he came in two years ago, I said I’m going to show you the ropes.”

Nearhood believes he walks into a fertile situation at Cross. The school has a group of hungry athletes who have already approached him about hitting the mat this winter.

“I just know I’m in the right place,” Nearhood said. “They’ve come up to me and said I heard you’re the new wrestling coach. They say they can’t wait to start. It’s been a really good experience so far. I told (AD Shaun Wright) I want my kids to wrestle 50 matches. This is my first year where duals record wouldn’t matter to me. My goal the first year is mat time for these kids.”

Nearhood coached eight state champions at Stratford and never had a losing season or missed the playoffs. He was a North-South All-Star coach for the second time last season.

“I had a very positive experience there,” Nearhood said. “It’s a great place to be and work. Principal (Heather) Taylor and Coach (John) Chalus were very supportive. I appreciate Coach (Ray) Stackley for taking a chance on me when I was young.”

Nearhood will help coach wide receivers and outside linebackers for the varsity football team in the fall and then transition into wrestling.

“I think it’s something special waiting to happen,” Nearhood said. “… I know the kids are tough.”

Wright echoes the sentiments of the school’s new wrestling coach.

“Once you capture the imagination of these kids from Cross and they understand you care about them, there is nothing they won’t do for you,” Wright said. “They will play extremely hard for you. He brings that to the table. They know his name already. He knows how to help kids become better athletes and better men.”