It’s 6:30 Wednesday morning and a slit of sunlight is sneaking onto the stairs that lead up to the hot and steamy Blue Springs High School wrestling room.
From the hallway leading into the room, T. Rex’s “Bang a Gong” is blasting away while former head coach Mike Hagerty and his All-American protégé Ali Howk, the most successful female wrestler in the program’s storied history, swing a weighted canvas above their heads, between intervals of push-ups and workouts with a weighted ball.
It’s not for the faint of heart.
The T. Rex classic is followed by Lou Reed, Gerry Rafferty and Dire Straits tunes that were classics before Howk was born.
“Guess who picked the music?” asked Hagerty, drawing a chuckle from Howk. “She’ll tell you she doesn’t like it, but I know she does.”
They call it dinosaur rock – and yes, Howk enjoys the tunes.
“When I was wrestling here, Coach picked all the music, and I’ll admit, I wasn’t a fan,” said Howk, 18, a three-time teenage All-American who is “on the fast track” to make either the 2020 or 2024 United States Olympic team, “but now that I’m older – not as old as Coach! – but older, it’s pretty good. It keeps us going during these early-morning workouts.”
It was like old times for teacher and pupil as Howk called Hagerty Tuesday afternoon on her way back to Blue Springs from a training session in Colorado Springs, Colo., with the Junior World team.
“I believe that All-American banner is from the Cadet Junior Nationals last year,” said Howk, who was first named an All-American at the tender age of 6. “Actually, every year since I was 6, I won an All-American honor at the Brute Nationals. My first teenage All-American honor came my sophomore year at Blue Springs when I wrestled at 108 pounds (in the women’s freestyle and took second).
“I really don’t pay a lot of attention to all that stuff. I just love wrestling, and I want to be the best.”
Which Hagerty said is bound to happen.
And he should know. As a wrestler, he was a three-time All-American at Central Missouri State University. As a coach, he guided the Wildcats to three state championships, 13 state trophies (for top-four finishes) and was named Missouri Coach of the Year five times. Hagerty also coached at Central Missouri, where he won a pair of NCAA Division II national titles. He also served as a coach on the U.S. national team in 2012 and 2016 and is one of the top NCAA Division I referees.
“She’s on the fast track to making the 2020 or 2024 Olympic team,” Hagerty said. “She’s special. She just has that special quality, and the skill, that sets aside from most competitors. And she comes from a wrestling family.”
Her older siblings include Josh, a former state champion for the Wildcats.
“I have five older siblings,” Howk said. “Three older brothers wrestled and my two older sisters were managers. My dad was my coach in wrestling since I was a little kid and he even coached me in football – I was a quarterback and middle linebacker – I wish girls could have played football in high school because I’d have done my best to be on the Blue Springs football team, too.”
When asked about her early morning workout, which she shared with Fort Osage wrestler Tess Kinne, Howk chuckled.
“My mom wasn’t very happy with the time,” Howk said. “She said, ‘You got back late from Colorado Springs and you’re going to the wrestling room at 6:30?’ And I said, ‘That’s when Coach can do it, and if I’m going to have the chance to work out with Hag, I’m not going to miss it.
“He’s amazing! He is like a member of our family. We didn’t always see eye-to-eye, but I know all he ever wanted was what was best for me.”
Howk attended Blue Springs for three years, and qualified for state – against the boys – as a junior. She left after her junior year to attend River Falls High School in River Falls, Wisconsin, to work with her new coach, Kevin Black.
“Two years ago, I wrestled Helen Maroulis (the first American to win a gold medal in women’s freestyle wrestling, which took place at the 2016 Olympics) at nationals, and she kicked my butt in the finals,” Howk said, shaking her head. “Her coach is Kevin Black, and after the match he came up to me and asked if I would like to help her train. I had to think about training with someone who whipped my butt, but I decided I would. After a while, he asked if I would like him to start coaching me and it’s been great. He is the wrestling coach at River Falls and we really work well together.
“All I learned from Coach Hagerty and working with Coach Black has made me a better overall wrestler. I have a lot of goals, and I’m going to work hard to achieve them.”
When asked if an Olympic team berth was a goal, she nodded in agreement.
“We might be pushing it for 2020,” she said, “but I know I have a great chance at 2024.”