Vaith and McLay: Nearly three decades of excellence
State champions in 1996. Runners-up in 1998 and 2007. Three third-place finishes and three consolation championships. Twelve team state appearances. Eighteen conference championships. Numerous all-state wrestlers and countless all-conference. All of those numbers help encapsulate, but come nowhere near defining, the last three decades of excellence by the Hastings Raiders wrestling program. With the exception of one season, the program has been led by two men during that time, both of whom immediately come to mind when Raiders wrestling is brought up: Paul Vaith and Josh McLay. Vaith has coached McLay, McLay has coached under Vaith and now their relationship has come full circle as McLay leads the Raiders with Vaith's help.
Vaith came to Hastings for the 1986-1987 season and served as an assistant until 1991 when he became the head coach. Vaith set about creating a culture in Hastings wrestling that McLay has continued and built upon to this day. And it is centered around Vaith's two keys to success.
"The things that we talked about, wrestling was the vehicle to reach kids," said Vaith. "In education your goal is to help kids challenge themselves, better themselves, and wrestling was a great vehicle for me to do that. The thing that I always talked about were the two keys to success in life: key number one, positive mental attitude and, key number two, a great work ethic. So those were the things we talked about from day one, at all levels."
One of Vaith's main goals was the creation of a youth program, which started with very humble beginnings and now flourishes under McLay's care.
"I think that was one thing we really got going, and that Josh has done a tremendous job at continuing. He is involved in (grades) K-12 in this program, and with the youth program," he said. "We got that up and going, that was something that was new. So we started with a mat in my wrestling garage and we had four kids, and those four kids wound up being part of that first state championship team."
Hastings youth program soon began to flourish and under McLay is experiencing some of its highest numbers in its history.
"We have been very fortunate at the middle school level to have great support there to make that transition from middle school to high school," Vaith said. "A lot of times you get kids going from club to middle school and they kind of get lost, but we've been fortunate that we have great coaches at the middle school who keep things going. I think the main thing we always talked about is that we want the kids to come back the next year. If they keep doing that, they're going to be pretty successful."
Hastings wrestling on top
Hastings experienced the pinnacle of their success in the late 1990s and early 2000s. From 1996, when they won the state championship, until 2001, the Raiders never finished worse than consolation champions at the team state tournament. Not only was it a special time for Hastings wrestling, but also Hastings athletics as a whole.
"The late 90s, for me coming in and seeing this be built, and Bob Majeski with what he did with football, really springboarded this school," Vaith said. "We had a number of good athletes, but we've always had good athletes. I think the thing about them, and coach (McLay) was right in the middle of that, they trained hard together and supported one another regardless of what sport they were doing. It carried across the board so we were having success in the fall, in the winter, and in the spring in multiple sports."
McLay, who experienced that period as an athlete on his way to three-straight state individual championships, said he remembers the effort everyone put in.
"I think the competitive nature of all those kids, we played together in multiple sports, different venues and stuff, but we competed all the time," he said. "I know they started the Raiders Express program around that time as well. Man, I was just looking for opportunities to train and get better, a lot of us were. We were all doing that in all different sports, being on the inside of it we knew we had tough kids and very good athletes, we just wanted to compete against the best in every single sport. It was awesome to compete with those guys, everybody had the right mindset and culture, it was a winning culture."
Changing of the guard
Hastings did not return to the team state tournament until 2006 and 2007 with back-to-back appearances. Shortly after that run, Vaith stepped down as head coach before the 2009-2010 season in order to be able to watch his sons wrestle while he still had the chance. Justin Hahn took over for one year as head coach before leaving, and McLay was named head coach for the 2010-2011 season after stints as a Raiders assistant coach and head coach at both Woodbury and Eagan.
Returning to Hastings, McLay said he knew he would not have to change much.
"I've continued the process because it's proven successful," he said. "I knew coming here I wasn't going to have to completely change everything, which was good. When I was at Woodbury and Eagan I kind of saw the other side of that and it made me appreciate the parents and the community that we have here in town. I knew what I was coming into and for me, I thought of it as an opportunity to give back to this community and to be a positive role model and influence on kids, just like Coach Vaith was for me, and continues to be."
McLay has built upon the foundation that Vaith built and added his own mark to the program, including his "one percent better every day" philosophy to complement Vaith's keys to success, and implementing more robust off-season training.
"The one thing that coach has added, he's gotten us to see the best competition, not just in the area but nationally as well," Vaith said. "His idea for the kids, 'one percent better every day', that's something Coach McLay brought into the room and that's been key for us, to keep focusing on that."
"I've been working out with the kids in the summer for the last six years now, 40-plus workouts for two hours a day. And we get unbelievable attendance," McLay said, as the rules around off-season workouts changed about when he became head coach. "We don't just focus on wrestling, though that's a piece of it. It's about the strength and conditioning, training for just power and speed all summer. We do technique for about 30 minutes of those two hours, but the rest is just developing a well-rounded athlete."
Complementing the workouts are regular outings for the team.
"The next thing I ingrained in the summer are team building activities," McLay continued. "Once a week we try to do it. We'll bring them camping, and during that time, the kids really mesh together super well, more than just on a normal team. They buy into the 'high tide raises all ships' philosophy in that they really get to know each other on another level. We bring them bowling, we bring them tubing, pretty much weekly to get these kids to have fun and buy into the training and the team atmosphere that we have there."
Come full circle
Under McLay, the Raiders have continued to enjoy great success. The team took fourth at state in 2012, 2014 and 2017, and were consolation champions in 2016. Vaith is an assistant under McLay, and while some might think that would be an awkward arrangement, the two have nothing but praise for each other.
"For me, coach doesn't have an ego where you are going to step on his toes," McLay explained. "Even though I was fresh out of college (as an assistant) and probably had some crazy ideas, he listened to me and made me feel empowered in that aspect. So the same thing (now as head coach), when I first started people were like, 'is it weird having coach?' And I was like, 'no it's not.' He doesn't step on my toes, ever, and I know I can bounce any idea off of him and he'll give me an honest answer. And he's always there for me. Always."
"Well Josh has been a part of our family," Vaith said. "One of those kids that just gave you everything, all the time. So to have the opportunity now, to share this time with him in a sport that we love, to work side by side with him, it's just awesome. I think about the passion that he brings, the energy that he brings, you see it each and every day. I hope these kids realize how fortunate they are to have someone like Josh that cares as much as he does. It's so good for me to be around that, to help rejuvenate me and to keep me involved, it's an honor to work with him."
Neither is satisfied where the program is at, however, as both are competitors to the highest degree.
"I want to win another state title, that's why we do it," McLay stated right away. "The kids that coach talked about in his garage on his mat, their kids are in the middle school level, and we're going to see that second wave come through. Those dads, my friends, know what it takes. They were on those teams. They want those same memories for their kids. And Coach Vaith's kid, Luke, is running that program, so they are getting phenomenal technique, they're keeping the numbers high and they're doing the little things right at that level. Those teams are just rocking right now, and once we get those kids up to this level, it's going to be awesome to see."
"I just want, coach is a winner, just keep things going," Vaith finished. "Get that one percent better every day, if we just keep focusing on that for the next decade, we'll be right where we want to be."