OWNING THE MAT: The Making of A State Champ or At Least A Good Man! (Blog 13)

Owning the Mat Blog 13

Week 13


It’s another do-or-die week, and the stakes just got a whole lot bigger. The State Open is no joke. This is where the really big Connecticut boys come out to play. Every single match will be a one-on-one war on those mats. And only the top five from each weight class will move forward to compete in the New England’s the following weekend.

This week we have three wrestlers left to compete in the State Open. So, we went right next store to the adjoining town, Windham, for workouts this week. RHAM high school, led by my old East Hartford buddy Ryan Fitch, is also a great wrestling program and they too were there working out. Windham has a long history of tough kids and success, and with it being right next store to Mansfield, it was a perfect workout place for us this week.

There was no school Monday due to the long weekend being part of our February vacation. The school buildings were closed, so we had to give the wrestlers the day off, which was fine because it gave our wrestlers another day to heal from the rough tournament we were just at. That’s a wrestler’s life. They don’t really get a real Christmas vacation or a Winter/February vacation because they have to make weight, train, and wrestle in tournaments during those times.

Tuesday, we were at Windham, but unfortunately, I had to miss practice. Instead, I had to renew my annual certification in restraint training for my job as a schoolteacher. Sadly, we’ve had a lot of violence in our school system, and we teachers have to be trained to restrain our students. Sad, isn’t it?

However, when I did get home late Tuesday night, my wife was smiling. She greeted me with a kiss and another late dinner, as she happily told me that Dakota got a good workout that day. She had picked Dakota up from Windham, and he was drenched in sweat like he is supposed to be after a good hard productive wrestling workout. My wife told me that Dakota even put one of the coaches on his back in practice that day. Sounds like it was a great workout to me!

Wednesday, we went back to Windham for another good hard workout. Unfortunately, I had to go late and meet the team there. And most of the time that I was there watching practice, I was on my phone on an emergency Zoom call. There has been some combative and nasty politics going on right now in the media about the school system where I work. It wasn’t an ideal situation for a father and a coach, but at least I got to watch my son Dakota wrestle while I was on the call. I saw Dakota beating some very good kids and getting himself a great workout that day.

After insisting that Dakota put on a clean, dry shirt before he got into my car, Dakota and I had a great coach and athlete and father and son talk on the way home. I was all warm and fuzzy inside, seeing Dakota’s hair drenched and him smiling from ear to ear. He had a great workout that day, and he loved it. He was excited about the new challenging positions he had to fight out of that day. This was precisely the mental and psychological space we needed Dakota to be occupying going into this really tough weekend of competition ahead of us.

During the car ride home, Dakota asked me if I had seen the wrestling brackets. I cautiously answered that I had seen them. I was careful not to let Dakota know that I was a bit worried. Dakota told me that he thought he could beat the first guy. I agreed that if he wrestled well and had the mental attitude that he had at that moment, I also believe he would win that first match.

Then… Dakota brought up the possible second match. This is the one I’m worried about but trying not to let him know that I’m concerned about it. Dakota told me that if all goes well in the first match, he’ll have to take on the #1 guy in his weight class for his second match. I hesitated before answering him because I knew this guy was a real hammer. He’s a beast. I slowly let out that I saw that when looking at the wrestling brackets as cool-headed as I could, trying not to alarm him.

Then Dakota surprised me when he kept smiling and said he was glad he was getting the chance to wrestle the best. His head was in the right place, and I was pumped about it but didn’t want to seem too excited. I didn’t want to rock him out of the zone that he was in at the moment. So, I smiled and calmly answered Dakota, “Hey, you know what? Your high school wrestling career wouldn’t be complete if you didn’t get the chance to wrestle the number one guy at least once before you graduated.”

Dakota agreed. I’m in a good place right now, knowing that Dakota is in a good place. His mental game right now, going into the State Open, is probably better than it’s been all season long. This upcoming weekend just got a whole lot more interesting. And if Dakota can keep his mental edge, who knows how far he can go…

On the wee hours of the Friday morning of the first day of the scheduled State Open Tournament, a nasty snowstorm with an ice storm to follow moved into our state. Schools canceled, and the CIAC postponed the State Open Tournament to Saturday and Sunday. The wrestlers got another pound for Saturday weigh-ins, but they’d be on their own on Friday to keep their weight down. All three of our wrestlers, including Dakota, made weight no problem for Saturday morning’s weigh-in

Dakota wrestled in the first round against Hand, the number 5 place-winner out of the L State Championship Tournament. I knew Dakota would have to wrestle tough and have his head on right to beat this kid. As usual, Dakota got off to a slow start and gave up the first takedown. Once again, his nerves were getting the best of him. Eventually, the kid increased his lead over Dakota to 5-2.

Then, late in the match, Dakota hit the kid with a beautiful trip that looked like the kid was going right to his back. And this four, or five-point move would win the match for Dakota. Or, heck, Dakota might even pin him. But unfortunately, the kid rolled right off of his back and only gave up two points to Dakota, making the match score 5-4. There were 33 seconds left in the match. I screamed as loud as I could for Dakota to turn him right away or let him up and take him back down for the tie and a possible win in overtime. The clock kept ticking down, and Dakota wasn’t showing much progress in turning the kid. I yelled a few times to let him up, but Dakota didn’t hear me and kept trying to turn the kid. With less than 10 seconds left, Dakota hit a desperation turn attempt and got reversed as time elapsed. It was a hard-fought match, but we still came up short.

In the sweet sixteen round, my 126-pounder won, and so did my heavyweight. Our coaching staff couldn’t have been happier.

The next round Dakota was back in a do-or-die situation. He had to win if he wanted to continue to wrestle in the State Open Tournament. The first period ended 0-0. I thought Dakota looked pretty good in that first period and was never really in any trouble. In the second period, Dakota really came alive and scored from every position finishing the second period up 7-2 after multiple stoppages for the other kid’s nose bleeds.

The third period might have been one of the longest periods I have ever experienced. It seemed like the match was stopped every 15 seconds or so to stop the other boy’s nose bleeds. Dakota couldn’t find a rhythm in the third period, and the other wrestler slowly fought his way back to tie it up 7-7 with only 15 seconds left in the match. During another nose bleed, we found ourselves in the position of telling Dakota that now he had to stop being tentative and he needed to attack. “Hand-fight and attack! I yelled to him as he headed once again to the center.

The nose bleed stopped. The whistle was blown, and Dakota finally attacked. After a bit of hand-fighting, Dakota got in deep and took the kid down. While what looked like a sure-takedown to win the match, his opponent did some squirming and wiggling, and the referee didn’t award the takedown points right away. The buzzer went off, and the referee said that Dakota didn’t establish complete control of his opponent before time elapsed.

We went into overtime, where the nose bleeds continued for his opponent. At the end of the third overtime, it was all tied up again at 10-10. The other boy shot in with 7 seconds left. Dakota sprawled and began spinning behind. His competitor fought it, and Dakota stepped over for what looked like a takedown. Then the kid popped up his head and rolled through it to come up on Dakota for his own takedown. The last two seconds of the match ticked away, and Dakota’s high school wrestling career ended.

It was so frustrating to watch Dakota lose to two boys that I thought he was better than. No one wants to see their high school career end like that. However, truth be told, Dakota is really only a second-year wrestler. And for him to even be at the Connecticut State Open Tournament is a huge accomplishment on its own. We are all proud of him. And he should be proud of himself too. Furthermore, the Waterford boy Dakota lost to 5-1 the previous weekend took 2nd at the Connecticut State Open. To only lose 5-1 to the second-best kid in Connecticut is an amazing feat!

Sadly, my 126-pounder and heavyweight lost their next two matches, and they were out of the tournament too. Like Dakota, they both wrestled courageously, and the matches were close, but they both still lost. Fortunately, neither one is a senior, and they are both coming back next year. And maybe next year, they’ll both get a crack at the New England’s.

Dakota has worked very hard over his high school wrestling career. He has learned a lot and has excellent technique. I, too, have worked very hard helping him become a better wrestler. However, at this moment, I am painfully pondering on what I could have done differently to have better prepared him. At this moment, I’m not sure what I could have done differently. Dakota is probably not sure either. However, I am sure that Dakota did something very, very hard, which is to have wrestled in high school. And in that process, he has gained some character. And I believe that that is really what I was looking for… the making of a good young man.