OWNING THE MAT: The Making of A State Champ or At Least A Good Man! (Blog 2)

Owning the Mat Blog 2

Weeks 1 & 2

Wow! I can’t believe it’s here. It is the Monday after Thanksgiving in my son Dakota’s senior year of high school. And that means that it is the first day of wrestling season for Dakota. In addition, Dan Gable just called Dakota to wish him good luck on his upcoming wrestling season. Yes. That is the same Dan Gable who went unscored upon in the Olympics and was named Athlete of the Century. Dan Gable is the Michael Jordan of wrestling. Dan Gable is huge, and that phone call was huge!

Dakota’s last chance to pursue his dream of becoming a good man through becoming a state wrestling champ is finally here. His previous two high school wrestling seasons had been stolen from him through knee surgery in 10th grade. The pandemic terminated all wrestling in Connecticut in 11th.

Dakota has been up against one obstacle after another over these last four years. But, in the end, adversity is what builds character, right? And that character building is what this whole wrestling journey has been all about. Everything else, like winning medals, is just gravy. We build character through doing hard things. Building Dakota into a good young man through wrestling has been our goal since we started this journey four years ago when he entered high school.

But hey, we all know that life certainly isn’t fair, and it hasn’t been fair to Dakota, either. Life isn’t fair to any of us. And all we can do is try to make the best of our lives and build our characters along the way. I’m sure that our Creator is more concerned about our character than our comforts.

Thankfully, our high school wrestling team didn’t fold this year. Several other teams around the state did fold, like East Catholic. East Catholic was my first job as a wrestling coach. Eric Gremmo and I brought it back to life back in 1990. I’m saddened to see it no longer have a program. Dealing with the pandemic and no wrestling in the State of Connecticut for the last year and a half made things tough on all of us. Also, our head coach left just weeks before the season began. But, against all odds, we found a new head coach to take over the program without any time to spare. Scot Rogers and I are still the parent volunteer assistant coaches. And we both have boys on the team. I have Dakota, a senior, and Rogers’ younger son is a sophomore. He has taken the place of his older brother, who graduated and went to the Marines two years ago.

The learning curve is steep, and our new head coach is dealing with one obstacle after another. For example, because of all the competition for the gym, we now have wrestling practice from 6:00-8:00 at night. This makes it challenging for the kids that work. It’s also tough to get kids to come back to school after going home for the day. In addition, we also found out that our scale and first aid box are missing. And we don’t have uniforms either, nor any money in the budget to get new ones.

Sadly, we lost one of our best wrestlers, too, to a shoulder injury during football season. This really hurts our team. This boy would have been our senior captain and the main workout partner for my son Dakota. With this boy out of the lineup, Dakota doesn’t really have anyone to wrestle with in practice who can push him.

But on the positive side, it looks like we picked up two kids with experience that we weren’t expecting to have. One came from the youth program the next town over in Windham, and the other is a transfer from Ledyard. Both of these new boys are looking pretty good on the mat and should have a lot of success.

The father-son connection between my son and me continues. Dakota entered the season weighing 154 pounds, which I weighed entering my senior year. However, I went down to wrestle in the 145-pound weight class, but it looks like Dakota wants to wrestle his senior year at the 152-pound weight class, though. To tell you the truth, I think he is making a good decision because I know he will grow some more. I also know that the 152-pound weight class will be competitive. Dakota will surely have some challenges ahead of him. But I know he’s up for it. And after all, haven’t the strongest and biggest trees endured the strongest winds?

The first week of wrestling is going well. Practices haven’t been that tough so far. Our new head coach Bill Corrente has been very positive and passionate about building the program and building some good young men, too. Part of Coach Corrente’s plan is to individually work with each wrestler to make them a better wrestler and a better person. I’m happy that the new head coach and I are on the same page to develop our young men holistically.

After being concerned that our team would fold like East Catholic and several others just did, we now have 17 wrestlers on our roster. About a dozen have been showing up daily, and we’re trying to recruit a few more. Some of our wrestlers are working their jobs a few nights a week. We don’t have a full lineup yet. We need wrestlers for all four of our lower-weight classes. We also need wrestlers for our two upper-weight divisions. It’s funny how many kids who come out for wrestling tend to land in those middle-weight classes.

Dakota and his teammates seem to be holding up pretty well physically to the demands of the first week of practice, which haven’t been too much on them yet. Now, on the other hand, the coaches haven’t been so lucky. I’ve noticed we coaches walk gingerly each day into and out of practice. We’ve also been sleeping soundly at night. It seems like the wrestling practices of the first week have been harder on the coaches than the wrestlers. Although, I did see Dakota holding his elbow that he dislocated over the summer. Later, he told me that his elbow, the bend of his arm, and even his bicep were throbbing.

Next week, the wrestling practices will get a lot tougher for the wrestlers! The practices have to get a lot harder because we’re only about 10 days away from our first match. Many of our boys are about to do the hardest thing they’ve ever done in their life when they step on that mat across from an opposing wrestler. I sure hope they don’t get shell-shocked. I hope they find the strength in themselves to come back the next day to do it again.

The beginning of the second week started off really cool. Gus Dastrous, the San Francisco firefighter who started E.O. Smith’s wrestling team in 1987, told me he was interested in coming to Dakota’s end-of-the-season team banquet. In addition, Dakota talked to me about his senior project paper that he is doing on the benefits of wrestling. At this moment in time, it seems like the universe is now helping Dakota have the best possible experience as a wrestler who reaps all the benefits of someone who sticks with it through the ups and downs. Wrestling is such a great sport. It’s a builder of our young people, just like Dakota’s senior project paper says.

However, on the flip side of that coin, this second week has been very difficult and frustrating. Dakota hasn’t completed a practice yet this week because of his elbow and arm pain. Every day this week, he had to leave practice early to ice his arm. I’m worried about the scrimmage coming up this Saturday at Windham High School.

In addition, two days this week, I’ve had to work my other jobs and had come to practice late. Coming to practice late frustrates me. And to add to my frustrations, I also tweaked my back this week at practice too. Now it looks like both of us Blanchard boys are in some pain this week, and we haven’t even had our first match yet.

Wednesday night, I picked up a get-well card for Sean, the boy mentioned above who should have been one of our senior captains. He was injured during football season and just had shoulder surgery. He is out for the entire wrestling season. Losing one’s senior year is a very nasty pill to swallow. All the wrestlers and coaches signed the card, and Dakota and I stopped by his house on the way home from practice to personally deliver it.

While in the car driving home, Dakota was rubbing his arm. I could tell he was frustrated. I asked him if he was okay, and while rubbing his arm, he said, “Dad, I deserve to have a chance to wrestle this year. I can’t go through another injury. It’s my senior year.”

My heart was breaking, but I had to be strong and hope for the best. And that paid off Saturday at our scrimmage at Windham. Windham is a powerhouse program that has a long history of great wrestling and 10 State Championships to prove it. The Windham kids are always tough. We bumped Dakota up a weight class during the scrimmage to take on Windham’s 160-pound senior captain. Dakota turned a lot of heads during that match and secured the victory with a takedown during the last 30 seconds. And to top it off, Dakota said his arm wasn’t hurting too bad during that match either.

Looking back at the second week, I have felt frustrated. But, in the end, it was actually a good week. Dakota wrestled well at Windham. And our new head coach has been open-minded with his approach to wrestling. He hasn’t boxed the kids in like many wrestling coaches are doing lately by only allowing wrestling to hit certain moves. Like myself, Coach Corrente believes that there are many ways to win a match. In addition, Corrente has given me a lot of room to jump in and show moves that complement his wrestling techniques. I like adding my expertise to the learning process for the wrestlers. And everyone benefits from it. I’m glad that our new coach is open-minded and doesn’t let his ego get in the way as we all try to help our young wrestlers grow into good young adults.