Iowa loves its wrestling, and Creston/Orient-Macksburg has been at the heart of the championship chases for the last 15 years.
The proof: nine top-four finishes in the Class 2-A traditional state meet in those 15 years, including seven top-three trophies and two titles (2007, 2016). Seven top-four finishes in the 2-A state dual meet in the past 11 seasons, including a 2007 championship.
Guiding it all is a 49-year-old who’s cool on the exterior but possesses a fiery determination to keep his program among the state’s elite.
For his sustained excellence and consistent leadership, Darrell Frain of Creston/O-M is The World-Herald’s Western Iowa Coach of the Year for 2016-17.
Frain’s story begins in Carson, Iowa, with an unusual family history. His parents had sister Ronda when his mother Cinda was just 14 years old and his father Jerry was 16. Two years later, Darrell arrived.
After completing the 10th grade, Jerry Frain dropped out to work for Schildberg Construction. Cinda went to work full time at Macedonia Implement when Darrell was in kindergarten.
Despite the difficult circumstances, their son enjoyed his childhood.
“I’m sure they were tough times,” he said, “but we didn’t know any different. I’m definitely proud to talk about our situation because you know it wasn’t easy for them, raising us.”
Frain excelled at every sport, and he became a huge Nebraska fan when his cousin Todd became a standout tight end there in the 1980s. Darrell Frain found many mentors among the coaching staff at Carson-Macedonia. Gary Wax joined the staff in 1980 and was coaching high school boys basketball when Frain was going through junior high. In those days, the winter schedule was arranged in split seasons, so Frain participated in basketball and wrestling. Wax insists one of the state’s best wrestling coaches could have been a basketball standout.
“I’m sure he would have probably been a four-year starter,” he said.
Wax coached him in high school football and baseball.
“I guess I’d describe him as your basic ornery boy,” he said. “He had a little ornery streak in him, but he was not mean, not malicious. He was extremely coachable. He listened to everything you had to say.”
Frain went on to play football and baseball at Graceland College in Lamoni. After one year of substitute teaching, he accepted his first full-time job at Creston. He was an assistant seventh-grade boys basketball coach in his first year.
Frain wanted to be a head baseball or football coach, but Vic Belger (baseball) and Dick Bergstrom (football) were firmly entrenched. He considered going to a smaller school and actually interviewed multiple times, but nothing materialized. After three years of coaching wrestling at the lower levels, the top job opened in 1999, and Frain jumped at it.
“I thought I knew a lot and I really didn’t,” he said.
He immersed himself in the sport from the start, seeking knowledge from accomplished area wrestlers like Brad Canoyer, Dylan Long and brother-in-law Kevin Allen. He worked with highly regarded coach Keith Massey of the Golden Eagles club program in Underwood. He eventually realized he had to push his top wrestlers to their limits in practice. Eventually it would pull along the novices who had the courage to stick with it.
“It wasn’t so much about the competition, it was about how to practice, how to drill,” Frain said. “That’s when a lot of things started taking off. Then we were doing exactly the same thing in the K through eighth-graders, and it really took off.”
His wrestlers have won 19 individual state championships among 32 finals appearances, including Iowa’s 22nd four-time state champion, Jake Marlin (2010-13). This past season, Chase Shiltz (182) won his third state title, while Kadon Hulett (220) placed second as the Panthers finished fourth in the 2-A team chase.
Creston has had at least one wrestler in the state finals in eight straight seasons and 14 of the last 15.
“I think probably the hardest part is people just assume it’s going to happen,” Frain said. “They don’t realize how difficult it is. You’ve got to make sure every level below you is still producing enough numbers and kids that want to wrestle, because it seems like the numbers in every sport right now in Creston have gotten smaller and smaller.”
Frain has helped with the Creston football program since his second year in the school district. Recently he has spent several years as the varsity offensive coordinator, including this season.
Head football coach Brian Morrison said the approach Frain’s wrestlers bring to the field is invaluable.
“I’ve really wanted to emphasize how he coaches and what he does with his (wrestling) program to the football program and kind of emulate that, the way they practice and the way they outwork people and just their mindset,” Morrison said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a freshman or the best senior they have on the team. They’re going to get the best out of each kid, and I think that’s what truly separates him from a lot of coaches.”
Frain and his high school sweetheart, Kim, have been married for 25 years and have raised three children. Madison works in the athletic department at North Dakota, while Trevor is in his final year at Iowa State and Brody is going to be a freshman there. Frain said his wife has been instrumental in his professional success.
“Sometimes I wonder how coaches who don’t have that person to go home to do it,” he said. “I think you always need that sounding board as a coach. She’s made it a lot easier for me, that’s for sure.”
Speaking of people to go home to, Frain’s parents recently celebrated their 52nd wedding anniversary. They happily spend most of their retired life in the Ozarks.
“You look at my sister and myself, everything that we’ve got is from their values and work ethic,” Darrell Frain said. “I’m still amazed by the success they’ve had.”