OWNING THE MAT: The Making of A State Champ or At Least A Good Man! (Blog 3)

Owning the Mat Blog 3

Week 3

           I asked Dakota on Sunday morning how his elbow and arm were doing. Sometimes things hurt more the next day. To my delight, he said his arm was still feeling pretty good. However, he complained that the knee he had surgery on was bugging him again. And his hamstring was tight again because of it. Dang! His knee and hamstring continued to bother him throughout the day. And it was painful enough for him to cancel his workout with me on Sunday night. I’m a bit worried again.

Monday and Tuesday practices were easy, which I guess is a good thing because many of our wrestlers were a bit banged up from the scrimmage on Saturday. Many of them had done pretty well in the scrimmage, but now they were paying the price for it with some minor nagging injuries.

To our pleasant surprise, a new wrestler joined our team this week. He’s a senior, and he’s pretty athletic. He said he wrestled in Virginia way back in 6th grade. I individually worked with him on Monday and Tuesday and was very impressed with how athletic he is and how fast he is catching on to the moves and being in a good wrestling position.

The new guy is a great addition to the team. And he’s going to win a few matches for us, too. However, wrestling is always filled with ups and downs. And while we’re trying to ride the high of doing well in Windham and the arrival of a new guy with a lot of potential, it looks like we also lost 4 or 5 more kids this week after the Windham scrimmage. Wrestling is a very demanding sport. And it’s tough to keep kids on the team when they begin learning how difficult this sport is. Oh well, that’s life. We have to take the bad with the good and then just drive on and make the best out of whatever we have.

Wow! What an opening night we had this Wednesday. We opened up our season at home against New Britain, where I teach and used to coach. We didn’t have any wrestlers in the first four weight classes nor a heavyweight (285 lbs.) We had to forfeit the first four weight classes, but luckily, we had two wrestlers in the 220-pound weight class, so we bumped one up to the heavyweight class and didn’t have to give up a forfeit there.

We started the night off with several alumni pouring into the building to watch our season opener with their parents. They got a treat. They saw a very exciting match starting with our 132-pounder, the transfer from Ledyard.

Our first wrestler was a bit rusty out there and got caught in a few dangerous situations from a tough and talented wrestler from New Britain. But, in the end, our boy pulled out a win via a pin that fired up the crowd and got us off to a great start.

Next, our 138-pounder picked right up where he left off two years ago and was relentless with his half-nelson attack. His half-nelsons eventually wore down his opponent, and he pinned the New Britain boy firing up our fans some more.

Our 145-pounder received a win by forfeit from the other team. And then my son, Dakota, took the mat. Dakota looked awesome out there on the mat. He was well on his way to a technical pin in the first period when he finally pinned the boy giving us six more team points and our third pin in a row. Everyone was starting to sense that something special was happening here.

The following several weight classes, we had our less experienced kids go out there on the mat, and they all battled very hard. We lost a few matches here, but we were extremely proud of their efforts and performance. For the last varsity match of the night, we bumped up our 220-pounder, who came to us from the Windham youth program, and he took it right to the New Britain kid pinning him in the first period. We ended the night with two JV matches, in which both of our young wrestlers really impressed us.

Our brand-new head coach, Bill Corrente, earned his first win as a new high school wrestling coach. I couldn’t have been happier for Coach Corrente, our wrestlers, and all of our parents and fans in the stands. It was a great night all around and a wonderful way to start our season. We now have something to build upon now. However, I’ve been around this sport long enough to know that there will be a lot of ups and downs coming our way, starting with this Saturday’s tournament in Waterford.

Thursday morning, I woke up to a Facebook message from a wrestling coach in Maine who saw Dakota’s wrestling video from the night before on Facebook. He was very impressed and wanted to talk to Dakota. This is one of those highs I was talking about up above. Unfortunately, right after that, I received a text from an Ivory league school that Dakota had been looking at that said their school probably wasn’t the right fit. This is one of those lows I was referring to above. Many more highs and lows are still coming. It’s going to be one heck of a roller coaster ride over the next several months.

Later in the morning, I saw a text from our head coach Bill Corrente telling me that he had a surprise for me that night at wrestling practice. I reminded him that I would be late to practice because I had to meet with the teacher contract negotiations team. I wondered what the surprise was, and when I finally made it to practice, Coach asked me, “Are you ready for your surprise?

Next, he called some kid out of the bleachers. I then saw a huge kid stand up and begin walking toward me. I couldn’t believe it. Was it really possible? This was amazing. This kid was big, solid, and nearly 300-pounds. I excitedly asked the kid, “Are you are new heavyweight?”

He responded that he wanted to learn to wrestle. I almost jumped for joy. We finally have a heavyweight. The stars are aligning for a very special kind of season, even if it still is one of the craziest seasons right in the middle of a pandemic.

“This is great, coach! You found us a heavyweight!” I blurted out to our head coach.

“You want to know what’s even better?” Coach Corrente asked. “You’re going to teach him how to wrestle!”

Hey, I’m more than happy to teach any kid how to wrestle. But I hope this one doesn’t fall on me.

Dakota looked good and healthy going into Saturday’s 15-team Lancer Tournament at Waterford High School. I couldn’t say the same about myself as I gingerly walked into the place wearing my brand-new E.O. Smith coaching shirt and sporting a hyper-extended knee and backache that is getting worse instead of better.

During the coaches’ meeting, one of the coaches, Chris Gamble, who I used to wrestle with, came up to me and asked if he had heard correctly that there was a Blanchard in the tournament. I beamed with pride and said, “There sure is! He’s at 152-pounds, and he’s pretty good too!”

When I got back to the bleachers to sit with the team, I noticed Dakota’s demeanor had changed some. I asked him what was going on, and he told me that he was nervous. I responded, “You’re human. You’re supposed to be nervous.” But, unfortunately, it was way beyond that for Dakota. He was so stressed out that he was making himself sick. His skin was actually turning grey, and it was worrying me.

Dakota’s first match didn’t help much either. He came up against a very experienced scrappy wrestler who put Dakota on his back a few times. Dakota made several mistakes that he doesn’t usually make that one can’t do against good wrestlers. Thankfully, Dakota pulled off a 16-8 win, but it felt like he was continuously on the verge of losing that match.

Before Dakota’s next match, our head coach Bill Corrente asked me why Dakota’s skin was grey. Dakota was still in his own head and couldn’t seem to calm his nerves. I gave him some relaxation techniques, but it didn’t make a difference. And to add salt to the wound, next Dakota faced a very, very good wrestler who pinned him. Everyone on E.O. Smith’s team was shocked to see Dakota get not only beat but pinned.

Things had gone from bad to worse. I knew Dakota was now psychologically bruised and would have a very hard time coming back from this damaging start to the tournament. I went into the locker room and tried to soothe him and bring him mentally back into the game. I didn’t have a lot of success, though.

However, our world works in mysterious ways sometimes. And I am so grateful that Dakota’s old coach, Jon Torres, who just went over to coach Windham high school, walked into the room and tried to console Dakota and give him some good advice when my words had fallen flat. I think Dakota needed that extra encouragement from his old coach. Thanks, Coach Torres, for putting the wrestlers ahead of wrestling.

When Dakota calmed down and was back in the bleachers, I talked with him. I told him that this was the exact moment we had been talking about for four years. This is when he gets to decide if he mans-up, or doesn’t. This is when he gets to decide if he digs deep to come back or doesn’t. He can walk into his next match telling himself how much this sucks. Or he can step onto that mat, telling himself that he owns the mat and he will win on his mat. The choice is all his and his alone to make.

Head coach Bill Corrente also saw what was going on with Dakota, and he too pulled Dakota aside a few times for a talk. Coach Corrente knew he had to get into Dakota’s head and kick out Dakota’s self-sabotaging thoughts.

Maybe it was good for the team to see Dakota struggling and learn that he, too, just like them, was human and that wrestling was hard as heck for him, too, regardless of how good his teammates may think he was. The bottom line is that wrestling is brutal for everyone, no matter who you are or where you’re from.

Speaking of difficulties, I’m very proud of our team. We have a very young and inexperienced team who had the odds against them, but they all fought valiantly all day long. There were so many ups and downs. And the summation of all those ups and downs exhausted our coaching staff and team. However, we landed two kids in the finals and two kids in the semifinals when it was all done. Our 220-pounder took first. Our 132-pounder, who we bumped up to 138-pounds, took 2nd. Our 152- pounder, Dakota, who bravely fought his way back, took 3rd. And our brand new 160-pounder, who we bumped up to 170-pounds, took 4th. As a team with no wrestlers in the bottom four weight classes, we took 7th. That’s impressive!

I am so proud of this team. These young boys were really up against a lot of adversity on this day, and they stepped up with all they had and did the best they could. Not a single kid quit on themselves or us. And that’s all we coaches can ask for. This season is going to be one heck of a season, indeed!

And as for Dakota, the entire coaching staff realizes what he was up against with that grey skin. And even though the tournament didn’t go the way Dakota or we had hoped for him, we also know that he had a huge mountain to climb to fight his way back for 3rd place. And he did it. And it was very impressive.

When I had Dakota alone in the car for the ride home, I think we made a lot of progress on his outlook on wrestling. I think he now realizes that he doesn’t have to be perfect. He doesn’t have to win every match. And he doesn’t have to be a state champ. He just needs to be his best version of himself. And shooting for that best version and a state championship can help him shoot for the stars and miss with the moon. If he does hit the star, he can accomplish something amazing that he’ll always be proud of. If he misses and lands on the moon, he still would have been super successful and still have had an out-of-this-world- experience. And this moon landing, too, would lift him to an even better version of himself. And that’s exactly what we want. We want Dakota to become the best version of himself. We want him to become a good man by doing something very hard, like wrestling.

Oh yeah. One more thing. It was awesome to see Dakota’s off-season KT KIDZ wrestling teammate Ben Gorr at the wrestling tournament this weekend. Ben took second and then was sitting matside encouragement to Dakota when he was battling for 3rd place. Ben even pointed out to me that the table had messed up on Dakota’s score forgetting to give him back points he had earned for a Zook. The next day, Ben’s mom sent me a photo of Ben and Dakota standing together holding their trophies. That picture is priceless.