STERLING – A familiar face will coach the Sterling wrestling team next season, but it might not be who you think.
Nolan Baker, a Sterling High School social studies teacher and former wrestling assistant, is succeeding Kevin Heller, who stepped down this offseason after leading the program from 2019-23. Heller had previously served as an assistant coach for the Golden Warriors.
“I am very appreciative of everything I got to learn from Coach Heller this past year,” Baker said. “I think he did a great job of showing me the ropes as much as he could, and I’m definitely going to miss him next year. He was a great strength to our program.”
Baker, a Byron native, comes from a wrestling family. His dad, Bob, coached a state championship team at Byron High School, and coached for USA Wrestling. His older brother, Nelson, is a former two-time high school state champion at Byron and now coaches in Rochelle.
Nolan Baker recently concluded a decorated wrestling career in Colorado Springs.
At Byron, the younger Baker brother was also a two-time state champion, going back-to-back as a junior and senior before going on to wrestle at the Division I level for Northern Illinois University.
In 2019, he left NIU to pursue his Olympic dream. Baker secured a spot on the USA Junior World team, and later placed fifth in the Olympic Trials in 2021.
Last year, Baker began his first year of teaching at Sterling High School, and also served as an assistant on Heller’s coaching staff.
“It was a learning curve coming in. It was my first year getting to know any of the kids, and I’m so excited for this season because I’ve already got a year bought in with these kids,” Baker said. “Half of the fun of wrestling is getting to know the guys that are on your team. I’ve gotten to have them in the wrestling room for a year, I’ve gotten to have some of them in the classroom this year, so hopefully we get to have another year that’s even smoother sailing than this last year was.”
Baker hopes to translate his experience as a high-level wrestler into high-level coaching.
“Obviously, I know there’s going to be some lessons that get learned throughout the season. I’m really, really excited to implement some of the changes and ideas that I have,” Baker said. “I have experience wrestling at a really high level, and now I’m excited to try to translate that into helping other wrestlers compete at a very high level.”
As a soon-to-be first-year head coach, Baker has a rough idea of what he wants to do with the program. First and foremost, he wants to make sure he’s putting every wrestler in the best position to succeed.
“In terms of the immediate [goal], we want our wrestlers to be as successful on the mat as possible,” Baker said. “This first year, I want to really ensure that we have a focused plan that we are implementing with our wrestlers so they know exactly what to do when they step out on the mat. I want to instill accountability and a solid work ethic in all of our wrestlers, and I want to send as many of our wrestlers to state as possible. And hopefully bring home some hardware.”
Baker’s approach to coaching involves training in multiple styles, including Greco-Roman and Freestyle wrestling. Getting the kids comfortable with trying new things and adapting the techniques to fit each wrestlers’ strengths are two keys to making a successful head coach transition.
“Ideally, I think that I bring a different kind of energy to the wrestling room. I have the most fun when the kids are having fun,” Baker said. “I want to create an environment where kids are comfortable enough to try new things. I think a lot of coaches get into the mindset of my wrestlers are going to wrestle this way. I want to capitalize on our wrestlers’ strengths as much as possible, even if it might look unconventional at times.”