OWNING THE MAT: The Making of A State Champ or At Least A Good Man! (Blog 9)

Owning the Mat Blog 9

Week 9


So, here we are going into the last full week of January. I’m beginning to feel like the end of the wrestling season is coming too fast. We only have a few weeks left, and then our regular season will be over. The Class M State Championships take place on the third weekend of February. That weekend will be the end of most of our wrestlers’ season. A few who place in the tournament will get a chance to go to the State Open Championship the following weekend. And then, that will be the last weekend for most, if not all, of our wrestlers who made it that far. If any of our wrestlers place in the State Open Championship, they’ll get one more week of wrestling. Then their season will end on the first weekend in March with the New England Championships.

I feel a little sad knowing my time as my son’s high school wrestling coach is coming to an end soon. These four years have gone by very fast. I can still remember when the last day of his senior season seemed so far away. I’m so grateful for having the opportunity that so few fathers get. And that opportunity is being their son’s high school coach. But, with the sweetness of this privilege also comes the bittersweetness of thinking it will be over soon. I know all this will soon be in the rearview mirror as just a memory of the many ups and downs that we shared together.

This week started off pretty normal. At least one kid was missing because of Covid. And at least one more kid was missing each day because of work obligations. Eight kids showed up on both Monday night and Tuesday night for practice. Coach Corrente is hoping that next year he can change our practice times from 6:00-8:00 PM to when school lets out at 2:30. I hope he is successful because 2:30 would be a much better time for our wrestlers and a much better time for Coach Corrente too, now that he works at E.O. Smith High School.

In the same vein above, I even told a kid on Tuesday night that we should be able to double our numbers next year. And that he’ll most likely have someone next year to wrestle with that is the same size as him.

Injuries continue to plague our wrestlers and some of our coaching staff. Several of our wrestlers are walking around with bruised ribs. And Coach Corrente is just getting over his sore ribs. Dakota has nagging injuries all over his body. Lately, his Achilles tendon has been flaring up to the point where it feels like it’s burning. I’m a little worried about Dakota right now. And I’m still dealing with my own injuries as well. My hip is better, and my knee is almost better from that fall I took last week on the ice. But, my right upper thigh is still hurting and making it so I can’t do much on the mat. Coach Rogers thinks my thigh problem was probably from that same fall in the school parking lot last week.

However, regardless of how much we all hurt. Wrestling must go on. So, it does. And we all grind our teeth and persevere. And while we continued to grind it out, Coach Corrente approached me on Tuesday with an opportunity to relax and do something else for a couple of hours. He had an extra UCONN vs. Georgetown basketball ticket for that night after practice. We’re both UCONN alumni, so he thought I might like to go. I did indeed want to go. We had a good time watching UCONN blow out Georgetown and their coach Patrick Ewing in our old stomping grounds, the UCONN Gampel Pavilion. All those UCONN National Championship banners hanging up by the rafters looked awesome up there. We had a good time at the game, but I don’t think either of us liked it much the next morning when our alarm clocks went off so early for another busy day.

Wednesday’s wrestling competition was canceled. The meet was another victim of Covid. And it looks like a massive snowstorm is moving into the state for Saturday too, which will no doubt cancel that competition as well. As I drove Dakota to our Wednesday practice, he looked despondent. I asked him what was going on, and he told me that his whole body hurt. He said that he has injuries everywhere, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. I’m very worried about Dakota. It’s breaking my heart to see him like this.

While walking into the high school for wrestling practice, I saw our 132-pounder walking down the street toward the high school. He had just gotten off the city bus. I’m so proud of this boy. Every night he takes the city bus so he can go to practice. He does what needs to be done to get to practice. It’s impressive. And every night of practice and every match he wrestles, he does nothing less than give 100%. He’s such an amazing young man. He’s someone you can always count on.

Now in another vein, our 138-pounder missed practice on Wednesday because he was trying to help out a stray dog that afternoon, and the dog bit him in the face. This wrestler is such a kind and wonderful boy. He has undoubtedly been raised right. But regardless of his love for living things, stray dogs included, we sent a message to him through his team’s group chat to stay away from stray dogs from now on. Hopefully, he’ll listen. But… probably not. I imagine his big heart will get the best of him again someday in the future.

Wednesday’s practice started off at a snail’s pace. The boys are getting lackadaisical. They’re getting slower and slower at doing what they need to do to the point where it seemed like laziness to me. So, I called all the wrestlers to the center of the mat and had a little talk with them. I needed to remind them what good young men are all about. I needed to remind them that good young men don’t take the easy way out and don’t let laziness get the best of them. I might have even gone a little overboard. I told them that wrestling wasn’t anything compared to what still lay in front of them regarding the challenges of being a good man. I told them the challenge of being a good man in the work world, someday as a husband, and even eventually as a father would be more challenging than wrestling for them. But, it was something they were going to have to step up to and be a real man about. And that doing precisely that in wrestling gave them a springboard and advantage to the tough times they will face as an adult.

Coach Corrente commented that I was getting a little heavy with them and that they were still struggling just to get a girlfriend. He was probably right. But, I still think that our wrestlers needed to hear what I had to say. They need to step up in practice these last few weeks. And I also told them that I didn’t care if they place in States or not. But, if wrestling helped them be better young men who were better prepared to take on the world after wrestling, then our coaching staff had done everything it was supposed to do. I sure hope this big picture thinking didn’t go way over their heads. I hope my little speech got at least a few of them thinking about seizing the moment and working hard toward becoming good men. Their teammates are counting on them, as well as their future family and this country.

About halfway through the practice, Dakota approached me and told me that both of his arms were killing him. I looked at his arms. And both hands were once again shaking as if someone had just slammed them in a car door. I don’t know what is going on with Dakota. He has been in agony much of this season. I’m wondering if he might have caught Lyme disease in the past without us knowing it, and now it’s resurfacing and wreaking havoc on him. I don’t know what else to think right now. I don’t seem to have any answers to what is causing him all this pain. I can see on his face that wrestling isn’t fun for him right now. And with this being Dakota’s senior season, this is the last thing any of us what for him as he is finishing up his wrestling high school career.

Our Saturday meet was salvaged thanks to our athletic director, Dan Uriano. Dan is friends with the Manchester High School Coach and athletic director. After some problem-solving, he managed to reschedule our Saturday match to Friday night in some small back gym at Manchester High School. It will begin at 4:00 PM to hopefully help us get in the meet and get out of there before the big weekend snowstorm arrives.

When I arrived in Manchester, I saw an old colleague of mine was the referee. Scott Inman was the referee for our meet. Scott used to coach Maloney High School’s wrestling team way back when I coached New Britain. It was good to see him again. I noticed he was moving gingerly. When I inquired what had happened, he told me he fell on ice that morning and hurt himself. Hurt or not, he knew he had a job to do. The wrestling meet must go on, no matter how painful it was. Boy, everyone involved in wrestling is a warrior, from the wrestler to the coaches, the referees, and even the parents who go the extra mile every single day.

Well, it worked, and we got the meet with Manchester in before it snowed. And once again, we gave up a bunch of forfeits and didn’t have much of a chance of winning the meet. In addition, Manchester came out with a very athletic team and really gave us a hard time. Manchester’s athletic boys quickly pinned our green wrestlers and gave our more experienced ones a tough time. Many of our boys wrestled bravely, and I’m very proud of them whether they won or lost.

Dakota’s match was once again very indicative of the night’s wrestling. A very athletic Manchester boy stepped on the mat against Dakota. Dakota wrestled the boy well and got in on some very deep shots that the Manchester wrestler physically worked his way out of. Then Dakota hit some misdirection stuff, and the Manchester boy looked like he was in trouble but then, through his athleticism, worked his way out of that situation too. The match was still 0-0 going into the later part of the first period when Dakota finally got a takedown after much effort. The Manchester kid was so athletic that he got up and out of it, and Dakota couldn’t do anything about it. The score was 2-1. Eventually, Dakota hit what looked like some kind of trip/throw that landed the Manchester boy right on his back, but the fall had taken place out of bounds, so it didn’t count. The first period ended with Dakota ahead 2-1. Dakota had controlled almost all the action in the first period. He appeared to be the better wrestler and in control of the match but was only up 2-1 going into the second period.

For the second period, the Manchester boy picked down. Dakota set up on top, and wrestling began. Dakota was doing a great job breaking the other kid down and riding him. Dakota kept trying to secure an arm, but the athletic Manchester boy wasn’t letting him get it. And every time Dakota took his weight off him to attempt to secure his opponent’s arm better, the boy was back up in his base and moving away. During one of these exchanges, the Manchester wrestler exploded to his feet, and Dakota got caught a second behind him, still on his knees. One cannot wrestle a very athletic kid from their knees, even if it’s only for a second or two. The Manchester boy, from his feet, used his athleticism to Head Chancery Dakota to his hip. Dakota got back to his belly, but the damage was done. No one on their belly was going to have a chance against such an athletic kid on his feet. The Manchester Wrestler drove Dakota to his side and then his back. Then he squeezed the heck out of Dakota and pinned him.

It was so frustrating. We all knew Dakota was better than his opponent. Coach Rogers turned and looked at me with sadness on his face and said, “That sucks. Dakota lost that match because he made just one tiny mistake.”

“Yup,” was all I could say, as my facial expression answered Coach Rogers back.

After the meet, while I explained to Dakota what to do next time in that situation, we both received a pleasant surprise. Arfan tapped both of us on the shoulders and said hello. After exchanging huge hugs, we tried to catch up some. The last time we saw Arfan was over the summer at Shirzad’s house when Arfan was training to compete in the World Championships. He had worked out with Dakota a bunch of times over the previous summer. He was always offering Dakota advice on what to do to improve in wrestling. And this encounter with him again, right after the Manchester match, was no different. Arfan was jovial and congratulated Dakota on the good things he did out there. Then he offered some advice on what to do next time to avoid losing to this kid again.

It was awesome seeing Arfan again. He offered us an open invitation to train with him again anytime we wanted. This is one of the beauties of this sport of wrestling. When one wrestles, they meet people from all over the world who are high-quality people and very friendly and very helpful. There is a real brotherhood in wrestling. Wrestlers, no matter where they come from, are like family. The wrestling community is filled with good young selfless men, and now these days, good young women too.

Now it’s time for me once again to put down my pen and pick up my shovel. Our area of Connecticut is getting 24 inches of snow. I sure hope we don’t lose our electricity. And since there obviously won’t be any wrestling on Saturday, we told the wrestlers that their Saturday practice is to shovel their driveways. And then go help a neighbor do the same. It’s our duty as wrestling coaches to continuously plant the seeds of what it means to be a good man and even a good neighbor too.