Randy Steward has been in north Georgia for nearly four years. Joining Sonoraville as a physical education teacher and head wrestling coach in 2016, Steward has taken the Phoenix Wrestling program to regular title contenders.
During Steward’s first year, the Phoenix finished state runner up to Bremen. Since then, the Phoenix have stood alone atop 3A traditional wrestling in Georgia.
In February, Sonoraville captured its third straight Class AAA traditional state wrestling title in Macon, ensuring the senior class will graduate with three team rings in four years.
But given the inevitable turnover, how have the Phoenix sustained continual success? In a phone interview with Steward, he explains his guiding principles that have inspired a school, a program and a way of life.
Steward first moved to Gordon County in 2016 from Iowa, where he was a physical education teacher and wrestling coach at Division III Loras College in Dubuque.
“I thought (it was) a really good situation and what I thought would be a really good fit and it’s worked out that way,” Steward said. “(Sonoraville) had a great wrestling tradition. I think what they needed, and I was told that too, they wanted an experienced coach who could be a leader. Grandpa Steward walks in and here I am.”
Steward said his move to Georgia stemmed from a desire for a change.
For the better part of 25 years, Steward instructed at Loras College, but being a D-III school, Loras did not offer athletic scholarships.
“Recruiting is key. It’s a small school ... 1,500 students,” Steward said. “I just got to the point where I didn’t want to do it. I had a friend who owns a clothing apparel (store). I was going to go to work for him as a salesman. I was thinking about getting out of coaching.”
Steward said a friend of his from Georgia called him and told him about the opening at Sonoraville and, from there, things fell into place.
Steward said part of Sonoraville’s success is due in part to the athletes entering the program who had been wrestling for most of their lives to that point.
“Our senior class right now had wrestled since they were little kids,” Steward said. “All that was coming together. I’m the fortunate one. I got the chance to coach them in high school.”
Steward said during his first year at Sonoraville, the team had three individual state champions.
“I wasn’t confident because I didn’t know the whole state,” Steward said. “I just didn’t realize how good Sonoraville really was. We finished second to Bremen in the traditionals that first year. That made me think, you know, we can compete at this level every year.”
The following year, the Phoenix captured their first title, but the challenge would be could they follow it up.
“All of the sudden, people said oh you had all these good kids, ... everything came together. We won it a second time. Now ... our kids don’t know anything different. Our junior class has not not won a state title.”
One noticeable mantra of the Firebirds, an apt association for the Phoenix wrestlers, is “expect to win.” Steward said it’s not just a catchphrase, rather an actual expectation.
“Doing that I think has helped our program grow some,” Steward said. “A lot of people don’t realize the work that goes into it and the time the kids put in outside of the season. I think ... it’s a source of pride for people. It’s a big source of pride for me to be able to be the coach and represent Sonoraville High School. It is a big deal to me.”
In order to get people to buy into an idea, Steward said you have to get people behind it and show it to them.
“You have to get parents to believe that, ... I don’t have any doubt our administration believes it,” Steward said. “I think they expect and they know what I expect. That’s got to trickle down to the kids and I think it has. We’re pretty good when we get to Macon.”
Steward said part of his role is to teach the pupils who come through the program life lessons such as commitment and working hard.
“I don’t take that lightly,” Steward said. “Still, the overlying thing is, if you’re going to be a member of this program, it is expect to win and it’s not being arrogant, cocky. It’s being confident. When they hear that message all the time and when they come in and put the time in and do some traveling and go to some offseason tournaments, that’s how you develop their confidence.”
Steward said he is probably more motivated now than he’s ever been as he looks forward to the next batch of underclassmen stepping up where the seniors left off.
Steward said he loves north Georgia and all it as to offer.
When Steward is not coaching, he often finds joy in fishing, golfing, hiking and other outdoor activities.
When he’s not out and about, Steward is an avid reader.
One of Steward’s passions is reading books about successful individuals, whether they be in business or sports. Then, he applies those gathered principles and lessons and incorporates them into his own program.
“I’m always trying to get motivated, ... but the one thing I’ve always remembered is that the people who’ve multiple success, like a three peat, everything I’ve ever read said concentrate on one year at a time,” Steward said. “That’s been very true for us and I’m going to continue to do that. You set high standards and I think the standards have been set. All the kids know.”
Steward said while the state championships are won in January and February, he believes the titles are won before the season begins, when the team trains during the late spring and early summer.
“In the month of June, ... we have practice a couple days a week. We wrestle at competitions on the weekends,” Steward said. “I know what we do and I know what works and it’s made us successful.”
This year, Sonoraville Wrestling will graduate seven seniors. Five of those seven were state placers this year in Macon.
With a turn back to the present day, many aspects of our daily lives are now on hold. The same can be said for the Sonoraville Firebirds.
Their banquet, originally scheduled for Friday, March 27, has now been postponed to a later date to be determined.
“That remains to be seen,” Steward said. “Based on what happens with all this stuff, we’re going to have to adjust. You’re going to have to deal with it. Now you have to deal with adversity. And how you deal with that, deal with it in a positive way and ... good things are going to happen.”
As we ended our conversation, Steward said he was fired up. Despite everything that’s going on around us right now, we could all use that sense of excitement that derives from the feeling of accomplishment and the drive for more.