OWNING THE MAT: The Making of A State Champ or At Least A Good Man! (Blog 12)

Owning the Mat Blog 12

Week 12


In some ways, many years, it seems like week 12 leading up to the Class State Championship weekend tournament feels like the hardest one every year. There is so much anticipation over where our wrestlers, or our sons, will rank in the mid-week coaches seeding meeting. Many of us are tired of being tired and hurt. Some of us become disappointed in how the coaches’ seeding meeting values us and places us in their ranking system for the tournament. Then some of us can’t believe it’s almost over and are feeling that bittersweet pain of nostalgia already. And then there are others whose minds are torturing them because they can see the finish line but aren’t there yet. Those individuals just want the season to be over, but then will be sad and miss it when it is over… It’s not easy to always feel good in this sport of wrestling. There are way too many ways to feel bad about how things are going. It’s a real mental game right now for many of us in the wrestling community…

I’m feeling a little down myself. In my mind, I had envisioned myself live wrestling with my son Dakota and the two of us really going at it near the end of the season. I imagined that we’d have some great brawls and that I’d do a lot to help him peak and be ready for the state tournament. Unfortunately, this didn’t happen, and I feel like I let Dakota down some. Among some other injuries, I just added a messed-up finger. The doctor said I can’t bend it for six weeks if I want it to heal. Nor should I be wrestling. So, now Dakota and the rest of his teammates are going to have to just settle for me showing them and telling them what moves to do instead of wrestling with me. It saddens me to end the season of Dakota’s senior year with this sort of hands-off approach.

Also, at the beginning of this week, our starting 182-pounder came to practice with his arm in a sling. It turns out that he dislocated his shoulder wrestling last week. Surprisingly, he asked me to wrestle in the Class M State Tournament this upcoming weekend. Thankfully, all three of us coaches were on the same page when we told him, “No.” We also said that his job was to heal, get well, have a good summer and fall football season, and then be ready to wrestle again next winter.

Our head coach, Bill Corrente, went to the coaches’ seeding meeting in Cheshire on Tuesday. Coach Rogers and I stayed back to run practice. I thought it would be better if Coach Rogers and I took a half of a step back and played more of a supportive role. We encouraged Dakota to step up as the senior captain and run practice himself.

Dakota running practice with the coaches there to help him was great for his self-esteem going into the States. Dakota had some great ideas on what he thought the team needed. He is a great wrestler and very knowledgeable. Dakota might even someday make a great wrestling coach if he ever chooses to. Similar to how I promised myself that I’d never force him to wrestle, I won’t force him to coach someday either. However, he did an excellent job planning and running practice with just some minor help from Coach Rogers and me. I firmly believe Dakota will make a great coach someday if that’s what he wants to be…

We went a little harder during the early parts of this week. I even pulled a big garbage basket up to the side of the mat, just in case. And I guess it was a good move because we had kids huddling around the garbage can on both Monday and Tuesday a few times. No one actually threw up, but a few looked like they might have been close. It reminded me of the old days when we had tough wrestling practices. In the old days, the difference was that we actually did throw up in the baskets and then went right back to practice.

Furthermore, in the old days, we weren’t allowed water breaks like we do today. In the old days, coaches showed no mercy. If you broke, then you didn’t belong there.

Even among the tough wrestling practices that we had on Monday and Tuesday night, I couldn’t help but hear the wrestlers occasionally joking around and laughing at different times. There was a long moment when I paused and really took in the kids’ laughter. During that moment, I told myself, “I’m going to miss hearing these young men laugh. Dakota is sore and probably looking forward to a break, but I know Dakota will miss all this too. He, too, will miss hearing the laughter coming from his wrestling teammates.

Coach Corrente was back in practice on Wednesday. However, instead of starting practice in our usual way, Coach had invited parents to the beginning of our practice. He did a little awards ceremony where he and his wife made up some beautiful award certificates for every kid on the team for different things. As we passed out the various awards, Coach Corrente let the individual wrestler and the parents know the kid’s record and what number he was seeded for the state tournament.

Dakota was awarded the Wrestling Team Leader, and he was seeded 5th in the Class M State Tournament. I didn’t argue with the seeding, but deep down in my heart, I knew he was good enough to be seeded number two. A few things just didn’t go his way this year. Oh, well… I guess that’s just how life goes, especially a wrestler’s life.

At the end of the ceremony, we took a picture of all the wrestlers on the mat with all the team parents standing behind them, which I thought was pretty cool. Some of the parents then stayed and watched our wrestling practice that followed. Thankfully, no one needed the trash bucket that night. I’ve never done a practice with an awards ceremony like this before. It was different and kind of neat. Coach Corrente thinks he might make a team tradition of this combination of an awards ceremony, announcing the seeding, and then doing a practice that parents can watch. And I think it might be a good idea.

Thursday’s practice, the last one before states, went well. We went lighter and did a lot of drilling. At the end of practice, Coach Corrente, Dakota, and I, like always, stayed after and made sure everything was cleaned up and put away. Then the three of us, like always, walked up the long hallway leading from the back gym to the school’s front door. And once again, Coach Corrente joked about Dakota leaving the school in pajama pants and no jacket. The three of us have done this routine so many times that it just seems like it’s something we’re supposed to do.

However, this is the last time we’ll ever do this routine. Next week, our few kids who place and move forward will team up and practice at a neighboring school with other kids going to the State Open. I’m going to miss those long walks up the E.O. Smith hallway leaving the building that Coach, Dakota, and I have been taking every night. And on the other end, I guess I’ll also miss the time Dakota and I spent together at the beginning of each practice rolling out the mats.

The Class M Wrestling State Championships were wild and exhausting this past weekend. There were so many ups and downs. While our kids wrestled 3-6 matches, our coaching staff felt like it wrestled in every one of those matches of every one of our wrestlers. These weekends are one of the most challenging things anyone can imagine. But, at the same time, it’s also one of the most exciting things anyone can imagine. And I feel so lucky to have done these types of weekends more times in my life than I can count.

Want to hear something really cool? Even though our E.O. Smith wrestling team showed up with only half a team to the Class M State Championship against 28 teams, we walked away two days later with 11th place. That is amazing! Our 126-pounder took 2nd. Our heavyweight took 3rd. And Dakota, at 152-pounds, took 4th. Our other four varsity wrestlers all made it to the blood round. They were all winning or on the verge of winning when something happened that snatched victory from them. We are so proud of those four young inexperienced boys who really stepped up and wrestled their hearts out. We couldn’t have asked any more of them. If a couple of things had gone differently, they all would have somehow found their way into the medal rounds.

Dakota started off as usual, nervous and a bit shaky. After getting a bye, I thought he’d beat the next guy up, but nerves got him a little bit, and he was a bit sloppy and struggled some. Eventually, Dakota pinned the kid and moved on to the quarter-finals. There, he met a talented wrestler from Avon who was very well-coached by John McLaughlin. John and I wrestled each other in the semifinals of the State Open Championship in 1988. He was a great wrestler and is a great coach. So, I knew the Avon kid would be tough, and the match would be very close. However, I figured Dakota would win it by a score of 5-3 or maybe 4-2.

Dakota, again, had a slow start and went down 2-0. Again his nerves were shaking him up some and making him a bit sloppy out there. To his credit, Dakota did go on the attack and tried very hard to get on the scoreboard. Dakota got back to his feet and continuously shot on the Avon boy. But the Avon boy kept successfully defending himself with good sprawls and a good front headlock. All season long, I’ve been on Dakota about dragging out of those front headlocks, and for some strange unknown reason, he just doesn’t do it. I don’t know why he doesn’t do it. He just doesn’t.

I think the Avon boy only shot once the entire match against Dakota. And Dakota shut him down when he did. I would say that Dakota shot on the Avon boy seven or more times, and each one of those times, I yelled myself hoarse to Dakota to drag out and get his points. At one point, Coach West from KT KIDZ, who Dakota trained with in the fall, ran over to my side and yelled to Dakota to double up on the kid’s elbow (to drag out).

So, I stopped yelling, hoping that the new voice might have a positive effect. Unfortunately, it didn’t. Dakota wrestled hard, but in the end, he lost 4-2. I was heartbroken. I should have known the kid would wrestle a defensive match against Dakota, just like his coach tried to do to me all those years ago. I dropped the ball on this one as my son’s wrestling coach.

I thought Dakota was the better wrestler and should have won that match. Even though the Avon kid was seeded one spot ahead of Dakota as #4, I still felt like it was an upset. In my mind, the better kid lost. So, it was an upset. However, on the other side of the coin, I had to pay homage to the Avon boy and his Coach, my old comrade John McLaughlin, for doing what they had to do to win. Way to go, Avon, on a hard-fought victory.

I went to bed Friday night, psychologically shaken up. My heart was breaking. I had to find a way to pull myself back together. And I knew Dakota must have been going through the same thing. He was going to have to make a huge decision. Was he going to fall apart and feel sorry for himself? Or was he going to step up and do everything we’ve been talking about for the last few years of facing and overcoming adversity as a real man should?

Saturday morning, he stepped on the mat in a must-win situation. He looked okay to me, but only time would tell if his mind was right or not. Dakota got the first takedown and then proceeded to tear up his opponent. His mind was right! It was some of the best wrestling I had seen from him all season. After Dakota’s match, I watched the Avon boy come from behind and pull off a massive upset by beating the #1 seed in their weight class in the semifinals. The Avon boy caught the Waterford boy in a front headlock and then used the head chancery to put him to his back and pin him. The arena went wild with that colossal upset! Well done again, Avon and my old comrade, Coach McLaughlin.

Dakota soon stepped on the mat again in another must-win situation in the blood round. When he came over to the coaches’ corner to put on his green ankle band, he looked me in the eye and said, “I’ve worked too hard to let this kid keep me from medaling.” I replied, “You’re right! You’ve earned this! Now go take it!” At that moment, my heart was put at ease. As far as I was concerned, the match result was already foreordained. Dakota went out there and tore that kid up.

The same exact thing happened in the next round that would decide if Dakota wrestled for 3rd or 5th later that night. Dakota went out there with confidence that he had earned the right to fight for third, and he tore up his opponent. He even pinned his guy early in the second period. It was a dominating performance by Dakota.

Dakota went into the consolation semifinals with a full head of steam. He was going against the #1 seed who had been upsetted by the Avon boy when he caught him in the front headlock and then head chancery. A few months ago, in the Lancer Tournament, this same Waterford boy pinned Dakota early in the first period. The thought of wrestling this kid again for 3rd must have been scary for Dakota. However, this was not the same Dakota that this kid pinned a couple months ago. Dakota’s mind was right today, and he was coming off of three dominating performances.

The referee blew the whistle, and the Waterford boy immediately attacked. Dakota defended himself well. However, after several more attacks, the Waterford boy got in deep and secured a takedown against Dakota. The first period ended win the Waterford boy up 2-0. This was a lot better than how the first period went the last time these two boys wrestled. This was shaping up to be a real good match.

Dakota picked down in the second period. The Waterford boy was relentless on top, and he rode the heck out of Dakota like a turtle shell. Dakota had a hard time staying off his back, let alone getting out from underneath. The second period ended still at 2-0.

Third period, the Waterford kid picked down and escaped, making it 3-0. After some rough hand-fighting, the Waterford wrestler took Dakota down again, making it 5-0. Again, he rode Dakota hard and gave Dakota a lot of trouble. As time ticked down, I screamed from the coaching corner at the top of my lungs for Dakota to stand and throw him. Dakota got to his feet and got the escape, making it 5-1, and went on the attack immediately. The Waterford wrestler backed out of bounds to stop Dakota’s aggressive attack.

As they headed back to the center of the mat with only nine seconds left, I screamed to Dakota, You have nothing left to lose! Headlock him right to his back to win this match! The whistle blew, and Dakota went after his opponent with fire in his eyes. The Waterford wrestler ran backward away from Dakota, denying him his Hail Mary headlock victory. Time ran out, and Dakota wasn’t able to headlock him.

However, even though Dakota lost to this kid again, compared to how the first match between these two went, it was kind of gratifying. This time it was kind of nice to see Dakota’s opponent backpedaling for his life away from Dakota as the match ended. Dakota didn’t get the victory or 3rd place, but he certainly had a championship performance that Saturday at States! And he certainly did earn the respect of this Waterford kid who had easily beaten him just a few months earlier.