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Mitchell's master motivator

Mitchell High School wrestling assistant coach Tom Starr watches a recent Kernel practice. (Ryan Deal / Republic)

Tom Starr is a motivator and a listener.

The longtime Mitchell High School assistant wrestling coach recently resigned from his teaching post with the school district. But he's fulfilling his final duties this winter as an assistant coach for the Kernel wrestling team. Starr and the Kernels host their annual Jerry Opbroek Invitational wrestling tournament starting at 10 a.m. at the MHS gym.

Starr, 65, has never been a head coach for the Kernels. Instead, he's always been the assistant coach, pushing, motivating and listening to athletes.

"He likes to sit down and talk with them," Mitchell head coach Travis Carpenter said. "He will talk with a kid for hours. It doesn't matter. If they want to talk to him and they have something to talk about, he will sit down and visit with them and he will try to help them out."

Starr admits he's not a wrestling technician, but instead he tries to get more out of the kids than they realize. That's why he is content with his assistant role and said he's gotten more out of it than if he were ever head coach.

"Motivation is a big factor to me," Starr said. "Motivation and determination. Just teaching the kid and then trying to make that connection to life. That's why I love wrestling. It's very personal and it's a very family-oriented sport."

That philosophy has served Starr well for 39 years at Mitchell, but it was never the goal growing up in Mount Vernon. The goal was to attend a tech school, but the desire to play athletics was still burning. He enrolled at Dakota State and competed in football and wrestling for the Trojans.

The passion for athletics continued after college and coaching was the next step. The passion spilled over into the classroom.

"Athletics, obviously, have been something that I have been very passionate about," Starr said. "As the years have gone on, I have gotten much more passionate about my kids in the classroom."

Starr began his coaching career at Plankinton, where he coached football for three years and later accepted a job with the Mitchell Middle School in 1980. In 1988, he started his long run as varsity assistant football and wrestling coach with the Kernels.

"I didn't grow up a Mitchell boy," Starr said. "But Mitchell is my town. I am a Mitchell boy now and I really appreciate what Mitchell has done for me and the opportunities it's given me over the past 39 years."

He was Carpenter's first wrestling coach and said Starr has been important to the program because his life experiences he can teach the athletes.

"He and I have gone around the block a few times together," Carpenter said. "He's meant a ton (to the wrestling program). He's helped a lot of kids over the course of time and that's really a testament to him sticking with it and all that kind of stuff that he's still doing it today."

Starr has been a part of each of Mitchell's six state championship wrestling teams and those team accomplishments mean more than any of his individual successes.

"That's exciting to be here through all of the glory years in wrestling," Starr said. "I don't know how much I had to do with that, but I was part of it and I feel good about that. I didn't think when I got out of college I would ever part of it. My goal was to be part of one state championship team and then we reeled off (six) there."

Starr has taught industrial arts and career technical education (CTE) at Mitchell, but resigned from his teaching duties on Dec. 21. He contemplated leaving his wrestling post last year, "but this group of seniors I have been with them all the way up. They are a good bunch of kids."

As for his time away from the mat, Starr will spend more time with his wife, Jean; daughters Jill and Tomi Jean, and his four grandchildren. Jean, Jill and Tomi Jean are also in the teaching profession, and along with Tom, have almost 120 combined years in education.

"I would like to thank my wife and daughters for all the time they gave up for coaching," he said. "I was the luckiest person in the world. They loved going to every match and every ballgame. They were always there. ... Hopefully now I can give a little bit more back to them."