OWNING THE MAT: The Making of A State Champ or At Least A Good Man! (Blog 10)

Owning the Mat Blog 10

Week 10


Well, this week has started off a little different. We began the week with a wrestling match against Putnam High School on Monday night. And although, as usual, we had one of our best wrestlers out for Covid, and another out because of work, it still felt very different to wrestle competitively on a Monday night.

Unfortunately, we forfeited six weight classes. Putnam High School was already up 36-0 before our first wrestler stepped onto the mat. However, when we finally got the chance to put our wrestlers on the mat, they did not disappoint. Our 126-pounder, our 132, and our 138 started us off with three straight wins. We lost 145. But then got back on a roll again when Dakota pinned his opponent in the first period at the 152-pound weight class. Then our 160, 182, and 195 pounders followed up with great victories of their own. It was a great night of wrestling for us. We won seven out of our eight varsity matches, equaling an 88%-win ratio. We began the night down by 36 points and came roaring back to losing only by two points. It was a pretty good night of wrestling for us.

On the way home from Monday night’s meet, Coach Corrente gave me his coaching key. He’s headed out to a family wedding in Washington D.C.. Coach Rogers and I will run practice for a few days and do the Wednesday night Bristol Central meet without our head coach this week. Thankfully, we’re more than able to do it.

Sadly, our school budget doesn’t include an assistant coach for the sport of wrestling. I feel that is wrong. And I hope Coach Corrente doesn’t have to rely on volunteers like Coach Rogers and me in the future. Hopefully, someday, Coach Corrente will have a paid assistant coach who he can count on to help him out with the program after Coach Rogers and I are gone. Coaching a high school wrestling team is just too much work, with too many moving parts for just one person to proficiently do.

Tuesday’s practice went well. I finally taught our kids some leg wrestling. And Coach Rogers and I did our best to get them ready for the very competitive Bristol Central team we would be wrestling on Wednesday night.

I’m a bit nervous about Wednesday night to tell you the truth. Bristol has a large successful youth wrestling program that makes their high school wrestlers tough. In comparison, most of our high school wrestlers have way less experience than the Bristol kids. And that puts us at a significant disadvantage.

In addition, Dakota’s opponent is an outstanding wrestler. Once again, Dakota will have his hands full with his opponent, and he’s going to have to be at his best to beat this kid.

We arrived at Bristol Central Wednesday night after an hour bus ride. It was nice to see an old colleague of mine still around, the Bristol Central head coach, Archibald. He was coaching Bristol Central way back when I coached New Britain in the late 90s and early 2000s. I recognized the referee too. His name is Matt. Dakota and I saw Matt in Spooky Nook, Pennsylvania; Dakota wrestled in a wrestling tournament there over the fall. I’m still amazed and delighted at how small the wrestling world is and how often I see someone I know in it.

We were down four wrestlers against Bristol Central and thus was already behind 24-0 before our first wrestler even stepped on the mat. I knew every one of our wrestlers had a tough match ahead of them. And those tough matches started with Dakota this time. The 152-pound weight class went first, and Dakota took the mat against their senior captain hammer.

I was pleased with Dakota’s patience in the first period. He didn’t rush his moves. Dakota wrestled the first period smart and even hit a beautiful arm throw that I thought would put him up 5-0. But that didn’t work out when the Bristol captain immediately spun out of the throw once he hit the mat. The first period ended 0-0. Dakota controlled the tempo and wasn’t in any trouble of being scored upon in the first period.

In the second period, Bristol chose down. Once again, Dakota wrestled smart and did what he needed to do. The Bristol wrestler was tough, but Dakota held him down and kept the Bristol kid’s weight on his own hands or on his belly. Dakota wasn’t successful in turning his opponent, but he did the next best thing. He rode his opponent hard and wore him out some. It was a dominating performance in the respect that the Bristol kid, who is used to having his own way, couldn’t get out from the bottom. And he never even came close to scoring a single point.

The score was still 0-0 going into the third period, and Dakota picked down. Dakota reversed his opponent about twenty seconds in and went up 2-0. Since Dakota had so much success in keeping the Bristol boy down in the second period, I imagined Dakota doing it again in the third period and winning the match 2-0 against this talented Bristol wrestler. With about 40 seconds left, Bristol escaped making the match 2-1. We all knew that a takedown was going to win the competition.

With about 20 seconds left, the Bristol kid got in deep on Dakota’s legs, and Dakota was a split second too slow in reacting. Dakota went down to his hip and then butt. He tried to fight out of it, but in time, the Bristol boy finally secured the takedown and went ahead 3-2. Dakota immediately got up to his feet and tried to get away. The Bristol boy held on for life, and the time finally elapsed. The Bristol boy was declared the winner, 3-2.

It was a great match, and I was so proud of how hard and how well Dakota wrestled. I know Dakota wasn’t happy with the loss. But I didn’t mind the loss so much. I was proud of Dakota’s effort into doing something hard and then being a gracious loser when things didn’t work out the way he had hoped. In my eyes, Dakota had an outstanding performance, and it appeared that he was the better wrestler.

Every subsequent match kind of followed in intensity to Dakota’s. All of our wrestlers fought hard against stiff competition who were more experienced than them. None of our boys got pinned. And that’s something to be very proud of. Out of the nine matches we wrestled, we won five of them, and a few of them were by pins, too. We had started out down 24 points. We then outwrestled Bristol and only lost the meet by nine points.

Once again, we lost but won. Well, at least in my eyes, we did.

Thursday’s practice went well. We worked on some underhooks and ankle picks, among other things. An ice storm moved in on Friday, and school and sports were canceled. This gave us an extra pound for Saturday’s weigh-in and a direct order by us coaches for the kids to work out on their own on Friday and be on weight for Saturday.

There were a lot of ups and downs on Saturday. One of the ups was having the Enfield Coach, Paul Diaz, the South Windsor Coach, Judd Knapp, and I, all old wrestling teammates from East Hartford, at the same team tournament. Paul suggested that we three old warriors take a picture together for nostalgia’s sake. After the photo was snapped, someone yelled, “That picture is going to be worth some money.” It was a great picture, even if my hair looked a bit wild from showing some wrestling moves during the day.

Our first match was against Newington High School. Like us, they had holes in their lineup, and both of our teams traded forfeits with each other. Dakota and our team won. But he looked flat during the mat wrestling portion of the match. For the third period, I told him to play the takedown game, take his opponent down, and let him. Then, take him down again and let him up. I figured Dakota would eventually get the kid to land on his side and then be able to turn him to his back. Or he’d eventually point the kid out on his feet. Well, Dakota took me literally and took the kid down, let him up. Then took him down again and let him up. But after the next takedown, he just rode the kid again for the rest of the match. I guess my son didn’t understand what the takedown game really is. Another assumption I think I shouldn’t have made.

Next, we wrestled South Windsor. They are a good team. My old teammate, Jude Knapp, is a great coach. Plus, they have a great youth feeder program. That’s the same youth program our head coach, Coach Corrente used to coach before he came to Mansfield to coach our high school team. The South Windsor boy Dakota was supposed to wrestle was a former state champ but didn’t wrestle because of a concussion. So, Dakota got a forfeit and didn’t wrestle. However, South Windsor has two independent wrestlers from Tolland who don’t have a wrestling program or their own. After we lost to South Windsor, the two Tolland boys got a crack at Dakota and our 145-pounder.

Dakota beat his opponent from Tolland 10-1. And Tolland’s 145-pounder, Evan Albert, the son of East Hartford’s head coach, and my old buddy and teammate, Todd Albert, pinned our 145-pounder. Todd couldn’t be at the match to watch his son because he was coaching his own team at a different location. But his wife, Kim, and his daughter Paige were there rooting for Evan. Watching Evan Albert and Dakota Blanchard wrestle back to back in yesterday’s match brought back many memories of the years Todd Albert and I wrestled back to back. Todd and I had stood side by side wrestling back to back in the Connecticut State Championship Finals 30 plus years ago… Todd and I had won a lot of matches together back in the day. And now I just got to witness both Dakota and Evan wrestle back to back and walk away victorious just like their fathers used to do some many years ago.

Next, we wrestled Northwestern. Sadly, Covid has decimated their team, and they actually gave us more forfeits than we gave them. Dakota received one of those forfeits and didn’t wrestle, like many of his teammates. After wrestling just a few matches, we were declared the victor.

Our last match of the night was against Hall High School. This was a very frustrating one that we lost. Many things went wrong for us, and it seemed like none of our kids could catch a break. In addition, the referee certainly didn’t help us out any. As I’ve told my kids before, never leave the match in the referee’s hands. Unfortunately, a few of our wrestlers did, and they paid the price for that, including Dakota.

Dakota’s opponent was a pretty good wrestle. But, regardless, Dakota outwrestled him. Dakota made a few mistakes, like giving his competitor an easy escape near the outrebounds line and committing a few penalties. Dakota scored five points, and the other boy scored only one real point on his own. Dakota was riding his opponent hard but got warned for stalling. The referee thought Dakota was spending too much time on his opponent’s hips. Later in the second period, the kid ran out of bounds. The referee nailed Dakota for a stalling point, saying Dakota pushed him out of bounds. That wasn’t true. At the beginning of the third period, Dakota’s hands accidentally touched for a fraction of a second while riding the kid. The referee called locked hands, giving Dakota’s opponent another point. Then the other kid stood up and ran out of bounds again. The referee nailed Dakota for two more penalty points for stalling, saying that Dakota pushed him out of bounds. Again that wasn’t true. This tied up the match 5-5 with 30 seconds left.

With about 15 seconds left in the match, Dakota’s opponent scored his first real point of the match by escaping and taking a 6-5 lead. Dakota worked desperately in the last 10 seconds to secure a takedown and win, but it didn’t happen. Dakota lost the match 6-5. It was a hard loss to swallow. But… that’s life sometimes… life and wrestling are full of disappointments like this one, and we have to pick up our heads, learn from it, and go on.

And go on we will…