OWNING THE MAT: The Making of A State Champ or At Least A Good Man! (Blog 7)

Owning the Mat Blog 7

Week 7

This season doesn’t seem to be getting any easier or closer to normalization. I found out over the weekend that two more of our wrestlers have Covid. My heart goes out to them and their families. In regards to wrestling, thankfully, no one on the team is considered a close contact, so we don’t have to send most of our team home again for another ten days. However, Dakota and the other boy who previously had Covid don’t seem 100% back yet. There have been some glossy-eyed looks and complaints about being tired and not feeling well from both wrestlers. And since I live with Dakota, I can see what he is saying is true.

Early this week, we had some good news and bad news. Our female wrestler returned after being away for almost a month. We were happy to have her back but then found out that we only have her back for Monday night practices and Wednesday night matches because she’s working. Hmm… this doesn’t feel normal at all.

In addition, our new head coach, Bill Corrente, showed up on Monday with size-15 wrestling shoes that he bought with his own money for our heavyweight wrestler who hasn’t competed yet. We’re really excited about our heavyweight. He’s over six feet and close to 300 pounds. We know he’s going to win some matches. He’s very big and very strong, as well as very smart, too. Sadly, though, the wrestling shoes sat unused this week at wrestling practice because our heavyweight didn’t show up. We finally tracked him down after a few days, and he told us he quit because wrestling was interfering with his job and his school grades.

The shoes showing up without a wrestler to wear them feel like déjà vu all over again. Earlier in the season, one of our custodians spent his own money to buy our triplets wrestling shoes. He wanted those three boys to have a chance to succeed in life by building some self-discipline and success through wrestling. And then the triplets made some bad choices and had to leave the team. That was another heartbreaking one. What a waste… Those three brothers had so much potential, just like our heavyweight does. However, as any coach will attest, it’s not easy to keep wrestlers. An unlimited number of things can pull wrestlers away from the team. It’s so hard to keep kids with potential in this sport, especially when you tell them that they’re going to have to take some lumps now to be rewarded later. Even buying them wrestling shoes doesn’t always work in keeping a kid on the team.

However, in contrast, we had a great Wednesday night this week! RHAM came to our school to wrestle us. My old East Hartford buddy, Ryan Fitch, runs the RHAM program, and he’s had a lot of success over the years there. Sadly, we began the meet by giving RHAM five forfeits because we didn’t have any wrestlers in those weight classes. Giving another team five forfeits means we were down 30-0 before the competition began. However, that insurmountable hill of being down 30 points didn’t seem to affect our E.O. Smith boys at all. They went out there and started the meet with a bang by pinning their first four RHAM opponents. Our wrestlers that followed equally stepped up to the task, and all wrestled great matches. In the end, we lost 42-36. I told the kids that I didn’t care what the score said. In my eyes, they were winners that night.

I said the same thing that night to my son, Dakota, too, as he took the mat against RHAM’s Class M State Champ. I told him that I didn’t care what the score was at the end. I just wanted him to wrestle courageously. Knowing that he’s still not 100% back from his previous Covid infection and that he wasn’t in wrestling shape yet, beating a Class M State Champ was a pretty big ask.

But, just like the rest of the team, Dakota did not disappoint. He did indeed wrestle courageously. Dakota got the first takedown of the match and thoroughly controlled his opponent in the first period with a score of 6-2. Although he didn’t do as well in the second period, Dakota was able to get himself out of trouble and still had the lead. Going into the last 30 seconds of the third period, Dakota was still up by one point, 8-7, when the RHAM kid, who was on the bottom, started coming up on him. All Dakota had to do was have patience, and at the right moment, hit the Navy move, and he would have brought the kid back down to the mat and rode him out for the win. Sadly, Dakota’s mind was foggy, he was having trouble breathing, and he had next to nothing left in the gas tank. Dakota hit the wrong move, and that resulted in him being reversed and the other wrestler taking the lead for the first time in the match 9-8. Then the RHAM kid immediately put a chicken wing on Dakota and turned him to his back, where he held Dakota until time expired, winning 12-8.

Dakota lost in terms of points, just like our team had lost to RHAM. But, I couldn’t have been prouder of Dakota and his team. Everyone stepped up during these crazy Covid times that have repeatedly interrupted our workouts and wrestled their hearts out. It was indeed a courageous and honorable performance by all of our E.O. Smith boys. And that is the character of good young men. Wrestling and adversity in times of uncertainty, like we’re in right now, force our young boys and girls to step up, mature some, and become good young men and women.

The rest of the week continued to be rough. Midweek, I slipped on ice in our school parking lot and took a harsh fall messing up my knee and reinjuring my totally replaced hip. I couldn’t wrestle with the boys and had a hard time showing moves in the second half of this week. But, just like my old wrestling days, I refused to give up and worked through the pain. The six boys who showed up at practice on Thursday and Friday needed their coaches’ full attention and help.

Dakota, too was in rough shape the second half of the week. He got his Covid booster shot on Thursday and was miserable in practice Thursday night and even worse on Friday night. He was still five pounds overweight by Friday night and had swollen lymph nodes in his armpit and neck. He also had a rash on his face from the booster. In addition, he couldn’t lift his arm anymore and kept closing his eyes in what looked like a micro-nap in between activities. Head Coach, Bill Corrente, told me that I should probably keep Dakota home from Saturday’s tournament. He wanted Dakota to sleep and get well so we could have him back for next Wednesday’s match against Enfield. I agreed with him and kept Dakota home.

We only brought seven wrestlers to the Griswold Tournament on Saturday. I was calling them our Lucky 7 because, during these times, I knew we were lucky to have them out there on the mat, and I just knew they were going to have a good day.

While our Lucky 7, most of who were still very green wrestlers, were battling out on the mats, I talked to other teams to find out if they had any openings on schedule for the next two weeks. For the next two weeks, all of our opponents have canceled their meets with us due to Covid. We have no one on our schedule right now to wrestle for the next two weeks. Fortunately, I found a couple of teams to wrestle over the next two weeks who have also had teams back out on them due to Covid.

Our mostly green Lucky 7 did awesome at the Griswold Tournament. Without their team Captain, Dakota, our Lucky 7 took on a lot of full teams and still managed to place 7th in a 14-team tournament. One of our 220-pound wrestlers, who we bumped up to heavyweight, took 1st place. Our 132-pounder, who dropped down to the 126-pound weight class, took 2nd place. Our 138-pounder dropped down to the 132-pound weight class, took 3rd place. And our brand new first-year wrestler at 220-pounds took 4th place. It was a fantastic day for all of our wrestlers. All of them wrestled great matches against high seeded wrestlers. For example, our still green 138-pounder pinned his first guy, then he took on the #1 seeded wrestler and took him into the 3rd period before losing to him by pin. Next, he took on the #2 wrestler in his weight class and gave him a great battle before losing. We couldn’t have been prouder of our 138-pounder even though he didn’t place. This was probably his best day of wrestling so far. And that’s something he should be proud of, regardless of what the score said.

After all, wrestling is just the vehicle we’re using to develop promising young men and women. Our wrestlers don’t have to always win to have won. If they are facing their fears, doing hard things, and giving it their all, then they have indeed succeeded in my eyes and hopefully have won in their own eyes as well.