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Chris Murphy, Published February 25 2014

Basketball-bred Moorhead coach is at home on mat

Moorhead - Like a kid in the midst of a long car ride, Moorhead wrestling coach Skip Toops can’t sit still while one of his wrestlers is on the mat.

He has a blank stare from his coach’s chair, says nothing and convulses as if he’s either having a seizure or actually wrestling in the match.

It’s as if he’s fighting for his wrestlers.

It’s that connection with them that has the third-year coach leading the Spuds to their second consecutive trip to the Minnesota Class 3A state wrestling tournament Thursday at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.

“Wrestling is just one of those things where it gets in your blood,” said Toops, 30, who won Class 3A, Section 8 coach of the year. “It’s one of those things you can’t get rid of. There’s so many grueling times, you go through so much pain, so much sacrifice that it gets in your blood and you can’t get rid of it.”

For George “Skip” Toops III, wrestling really wasn’t in his blood. Toops was raised in a basketball family with his father, George Jr., acting as the head boys basketball coach of New London-Spicer (Minn.) for three years before having triplets and Skip in a 19-month span.

Skip’s mom, however, couldn’t wait that long for him to be of age to play basketball.

“My mom thought I was a little too physical and active of a kid, so she signed me up for wrestling when I was in kindergarten at 5 years old,” Toops said. “I loved wrestling from the get-go. It’s a brotherhood. There’s a family aspect that draws you in.”

Not in the Toops family.

Among Skip’s four siblings, nine different sports were played, none of which were wrestling.

“People just assume I come from a wrestling family,” Skip said. “I’m the only wrestler in the history of my family. I’ve never met a cousin, never met anybody that was a wrestler, but me. I guess I’m an adopted wrestler. It just fits well with my mentality and who I was.”

Skip started on the NL-S wrestling team for five years, earning all-conference three times, winning 111 matches and qualifying for state as a senior.

Wrestling may not have been in the family, but athleticism was there. The triplets (Brady, Mickie and Casey) played nine sports at New London-Spicer, earning all-conference in eight. Skip’s younger sister, Wendy, was a state qualifier in gymnastics and all-conference in golf, while also playing tennis.

Brady got a full ride to play baseball for the University of Arkansas where he played in the 2004 College World Series. He was selected in the 10th round of the Major League Baseball draft by the St. Louis Cardinals and played three years in the minors before beginning his career as a musician. Casey played college baseball for Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa.

Skip followed in his brothers’ footsteps, playing college baseball at Iowa Central Community College in Fort Dodge, Iowa.

It was a broken wrist that brought his footsteps back to wrestling.

“Played one year of baseball, broke my wrist really bad and transferred to Minnesota State Moorhead to wrestle for four years,” Skip said.

Skip was a starter for two years and a captain his senior year with MSUM.

He may have added wrestling to his blood, but coaching was always there in the forms of his father and grandfather, who both coached basketball.

After MSUM, Skip was a youth pastor and assistant wrestling coach in Cleveland and Grand Forks. He helped coach the Crookston (Minn.) wrestling team for a year before getting his first head coaching job at Moorhead.

Moorhead broke the school record for state qualifiers with five in his first season. The Spuds qualified five again his second season, while qualifying for state as a team for the first time since 1981, finishing fifth at state.

“When a school goes 32 years without making the state tournament, it becomes one of those walls,” Skip said. “Once you accomplish it, the guys start expecting it. When you start expecting, your attitude is different, the way you practice is different, the way you compete is different. You can see that these guys expect to win when they go to a dual, when they go to a match and they expect to win the section tournament. We changed that mentality.”

Just ask the Spuds, who won another section title this season and qualified four wrestlers individually.

“He shows that we can achieve a lot if we put in the effort,” said senior Kenny Mark, who is headed to state ranked eighth in Class 3A at 132 pounds. “We believe we can get to the state tournament every year. It’s something we expect.”

With four kids all under 5 years old, Skip expects to stick around.

“I grew up a Wildcat, I competed with the Dragons for four years, but I identify myself as a Moorhead Spud,” Skip said. “This is where I hope to be for the rest of my career.”

As for wrestling, it’s in Skip’s blood and not going anywhere. George “Link” Toops IV just started wrestling this winter at 5 years old just like his dad.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Chris Murphy at (701) 241-5548