HITTING THE MAT: The Making of A State Champ or At Least A Good Man! (Blog 37)

Blog 37

Week 12 Regular Sophomore Season

Well, this is the last week of the regular wrestling season. This upcoming weekend we will compete in the Class “L” State Tournament. Then the season will be officially over for most of our team. Only a few of our wrestlers will place high enough to extend their wrestling season another week into the State Open Wrestling Tournament for the following weekend.

I’m still sick this week. I cough and sneeze all day long. My rib that Dakota bruised with a bear hug is yelling at me every time I sneeze or cough or hit a bump in the road while driving my car. I also haven’t been working out with the wrestlers this week, either. I hate not being hands-on with my instruction. I’ve been doing my best to coach for afar this week, standing off the side of the mat, so I don’t get the kids sick. But my throat is sore, and I’m tired and feeling really down. It’s kind of bumming me out. Sometimes during practice, I notice Dakota, and I are just sitting there off on the side of the mat. We’re feeling sort of useless and a bit at a loss at the end of this season.

It’s the last week of the season, and it wasn’t supposed to end this way for either of us. I wish Dakota and I were both well enough so we could be LIVE wrestling and getting in great workouts together. And then he could be heading off to the State Tournament with the rest of his team. But, I guess it just wasn’t meantt to be this year. Maybe next year…

Since I am coaching from afar, I spent some time this week really watching the kids. I studied them some and wondered about them and their stories. What are their past stories that I don’t already know about? What will their future stories be?

As I’m scanning the mat, I see that only ten wrestlers lasted until the end of the season. And one of those wrestlers is Dakota, who hasn’t wrestled a single day this year. But, he has been at every practice except for that one over Christmas break, where we accidentally locked him out of the building, and he sat outside in the winter weather the entire time.

Our sole female wrestler has also managed to weather all the hardships and make it to the end of the season, too. Very impressive. She will wrestle this weekend in the varsity State Tournament. Wow! She is tough! This is a very tough sport! After all, only ten kids total survived these three months.

It saddens me though to think of all the kids that didn’t make it to the end as I look around the wrestling mat and see a lot of empty space now where there used to be bodies rolling around in combat. As I continue to scan the mat, I notice something that I haven’t seen before. Seven of our ten remaining wrestlers who are leftover are sophomores. Dakota is a sophomore.

If we can keep all of these seven sophomore wrestles, and maybe they can get a few of their friends to come out for the team over the next two years, we could have eight to ten seniors, instead of the one that we have this year. Dakota’s senior year could produce an amazing team if everything works out.

We would win a lot of matches with ten seniors on the team. It would be a great way for Dakota and his senior class to go out and remember their senior year of high school. Even I didn’t have that as a high school wrestler. My best wrestling team at East Hartford High was that 1987 team during my junior year where I was one of five guys from my team’s ‘muscle alley’ in the Class “LL” State Finals. That was most likely East Hartford’s best team ever. My senior year team wasn’t as good. We didn’t get to go out on top like I had the year before. But, if the stars line up, maybe Dakota’s senior year team could be one of their school’s best ever… and that would be something to remember for a long time…

As I keep watching Dakota and his team this week while wondering about their stories, my eyes land on a couple of our physically less talented wrestlers. I have coached a lot of these types of kids over the years. They are the ones who aren’t rugged. They are the ones that you wouldn’t expect to join the wrestling team. However, every year, every team out there has a couple of them who are battling against all the odds, and surviving.

These physically less-talented kids continuously have to wrestle kids who are stronger, faster, and meaner than them. They endure and survive these hurricanes that jump all over them and want to beat the heck out of them. They refuse to quit and live to fight another day. What they don’t have yet as a physical fighter, they more than enough make up for with their mental toughness and psychological stamina. No matter how many times they get taken down, they get right back up and are still part of the now much smaller number of wrestlers who are still standing there at the end of the season.

It’s sort of like the RUDY syndrome from the movie of the boy playing on the Notre Dame Football team. I wish I knew how to tap into these types of kids’ magic and share it with all of us… We could all be a little more durable…

My eyes next land on our sole senior wrestler, Quin. He’s our 138-pound captain who has been amazing all season long. I wonder where he’ll end up after high school. He might join the Marines, which he’ll do fine at if he does go there because he’s a good wrestler. So he’ll be able to handle the Marines. He’s also a really good catcher for his high school baseball team, too. Baseball is his first love, even more so than wrestling. Maybe he’ll play baseball in college… Wherever he goes, I know he’ll do well because he already has the discipline and knows how to work very hard. I’m sure going to miss him though when he’s gone. He better come back and visit.

Coach Torres seems a little bit more relaxed this week. He’s occasionally joking and rolling around some with the kids. He’s jumping in to show them better techniques when he sees one doing something that isn’t perfect. However, even though his demeanor is calm this week as if now he knows that he’s done all that he can, and now it’s their turn to show what they got, he reminds them of something that I will call one of Coach’s truisms.

He tells them that he knows some of them are tired and worn out from the long, hard season. He says them he knows some of them are sick. He also tells them that he knows some of them are hurt, too. And then he tells them that this weekend at the States, no one is going to care about any of their problems. People will only pay attention and care if they win.

It might sound harsh to some of you out there, especially if you’re not a wrestler, but’s it’s the cold-hard truth in the world of high school wrestling. Did you perform and produce, or not? Coach Torres hit the nail on the head. Win, or go home…

It’s been nice having Joey around this year. Joey wrestled on last year’s team. That was a pretty good team. Every varsity wrestler, including Dakota, had a winning record. However, we graduated five of the nine kids that wrestled on of last year’s team, including Joey. Joey is back this year as a volunteer coach, like I am. He’s so close in age to our wrestlers that he’s almost a player-coach, which is good for our team.

However, even though Joey is only a year older than our one senior, Quin, there’s still something about him that reminds me how fast these kids grow up. Joey no longer looks like a high schoolboy. In just one short year, he now looks a lot more like a young man now. As a coach and educator, I never cease to be amazed by this phenomenon, regardless of how many times I experience it.

Even though Dakota and I are not experiencing our last week of our wrestling season the way we envisioned it. I guess there has been a lot of positives going on all around us. We just take the time to look close enough. For example, I just realized that both Dakota and I have made it all the way through an entire season, and neither one of us caught ringworm. And that’s a good thing for both the young wrestler and an old wrestler…

I just thought of another pretty cool thing. After 15 years, I am finally back at a State Wrestling Tournament as a coach. And I don’t know if it’s just because I’m 15 years older or not, but this weekend tournament felt even longer and harder and more draining than I remember from my first go-around as a younger coach.

There were a lot of ups and downs for our team this weekend. And I saw so many old friends of mine that I lost count. However, something I do remember about my old friends was that their lives have been just as much as a see-saw with ups and downs as ours. Their stories were amazing and they brought me both joy, sorrow, and sometimes hope while reconnecting with them. The wrestling community is awesome! Come to think of it, I even bumped into several old friends who didn’t even have a son wrestling there. They just wanted to come down to watch and be around wrestlers. Pretty cool, huh?

When the dust settled late Saturday night, we had two place winners, a 4th and a 2nd.  Earlier during the day, when our lone senior captain, Quin, was battling hard in the semi-finals to determine who would go the finals our entire team was on the edge of their seats, and us coaches were inching closer and closer toward the center of the mat leaving our coaching zone that we were supposed to stay in way behind us.

Quin fought like a warrior. But the Simsbury boy was extremely talented with tons of experience and also fought relentlessly. It was a great match. And I really wanted to go out there and help him, especially at the end when the time was running out and Quin was still behind. Time ran out. And Quin would not be in the finals. My heart broke for our senior. He has been dedicated beyond belief to this sport. And now he won’t get his dream of being in the finals his senior year. This was his one shot. He doesn’t get another chance next year.

I hugged him and told him he did awesome with a lump in my throat and moist eyes. Then I had to take a moment to recompose myself for our next wrestler. There are a lot of ups and downs in wrestling, just ask any wrestler, wrestling coach, or wrestling family. Wrestling is physically and emotionally draining. Quin went on to take 4th, and we’re all so proud of him. His weight class was stacked with very talented and very tough wrestlers, which is a tough hand to be dealt one’s senior year.

Our 170-pound junior shocked the crowd a few times this weekend. He pulled off a thrilling victory in the quarter-finals, and then came back and did it again in the semi-finals against a very talented Simsbury boy. He made it to the finals on pure grit and determination.

And in the finals, against an overwhelming opponent, he thought he’s go to his bank of grit and determination one more time and perhaps wow the crowd again with his pure courage as our number one brawler.

However, this time, he too came up short. He was distraught that the natural-born fighter in him failed him this time. I tried to calm him down by telling him that he had only one job out there. And that job was to go after that other boy with a vengeance. And then let the chips fall where they fall.

Then I told him that he did go after that other boy, but that it just didn’t work out this time. He spit back that he failed. I told him that he only failed if he didn’t go after that kid. And I know that he did. I then let him know that he can’t win all of his matches. It just doesn’t work that way in life. No one wins all the time, regardless of how hard they try to believe they can.

Now we move forward to the postseason and the State Open with our very talented senior and junior wrestlers. And I’m sure Dakota won’t miss a practice this upcoming week…

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*** Finally, check out the very 1st blog of, Hitting the Mat: https://tinyurl.com/w68ubf8

Dan Gable Olympic Gold Medalist and Wrestler of the Century


Dan Blanchard, Teen Leadership, The Storm

Dan Blanchard is a best-selling author, and award-winning speaker,
and educator. www.DanBlanchard.net