Doors Ajar — Bring It: Chapter 18
My next match was the one I dreaded, pitting me against Tipp City’s Shane Gooding. I had been following his wrestling career through Pam’s updates. Her best friend’s boyfriend, removing him from the competition was not going to be pleasant.
So far, both Shane and I advanced with pins through the prior rounds. Already I knew he was not at the same skill level he was when I’d faced him back in January, but then, neither was I.
As she promised, Pam sat out of the match. She couldn’t bear the thought of either of us losing, but knew it was inevitable. There were no draws, no rematches, no best two out of three.
Shane appeared nervous as we shook hands. He wanted to win for his team and for himself, but I could sense apprehension. It was as if I could hear him wondering if he was good enough. By contrast, my self-confidence had not faltered. I’d beaten good wrestlers already and feared no one immediately ahead on my potential path. And yet, I wondered how could he be in awe of me? Had Pam inflated his expectations, assisting me with an inadvertent ‘black out’ to her own school’s wrestler?
If I had a shot at pinning him, I knew it had to come early. Otherwise, he would build confidence as the match progressed, making it increasingly difficult to control.
The first round expired without either of us scoring points, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. Everything I did, he countered properly and in such a way that did not leave him vulnerable. He didn’t fall for any of my tricks or stunts. Quick and smart, he frustrated me.
It didn’t surprise me how well-coached Shane was. His team regularly produced athletes heavily recruited and offered athletic scholarships.
He was first to score a takedown on a hip throw, early in the second period. I escaped, and then returned the favor with a head and arm throw, taking a one-point lead. Shane wrestled me exactly the way he should. He waited for me to commit, then noting what advantage I sought, he no longer presented a vulnerability. He anticipated well. Obviously, he learned from watching my previous matches, brief though most were. Toward the end of the second period, I no longer had a clear plan for how to beat him. Beginning to formulate a survival strategy to have enough points to claim victory by a decision as time expired, I considered delaying tactics.
At the break between the second and third periods, Coach Ellis suggested a couple of things I could do. The first required patience and timing. There was another option requiring considerable upper body strength. He assumed I had that advantage. I was not as sure.
The technique was nothing new, but I had previously used it only in practice against Coach Friske, never in a match. The coach was right about the vulnerability, though. I saw it immediately as the third period began. I seized upon it, but Shane countered, exactly as he should. As I feared, he proved equal to my strength. However, his resistance left him open to another move. Quickly, I scored a takedown, driving him into a near fall. He neck-bridged, preventing the pin, fighting me as I attempted to force him to press my weight off him and, in the process, collapse his shoulders to the mat.
With time running out as I continued ramping up the attack. I scored another near fall with only a few seconds remaining but did not achieve the pin.
Decided by points in my favor, I advanced. Shane and I shook hands and shared a hug. “You’re damned good,” I told him. “You could have won that.”
“I would the next time.”
“I don’t doubt it.”
A win is a win — another sports adage that is evoked to overlook the errors and lost chances that were concealed beneath the euphoria of victory. The decision was inelegant, as most are, but I survived. All seven of our wrestlers were still in the hunt for district crowns in each of our weight classes, continuing the unprecedented opportunity for a team district championship.
No surprise, Mark Heath and Mike Smith advanced as well, continuing toward the almost inevitable showdown. According to the seeding and the draws, I might wrestle Mark before facing Mike, provided each of us reached the district semi-finals. Mark had to beat me for the chance at his ticket to the regional tournament.
Coach Ellis patted my back. He knew me well enough to see I was not satisfied with the way my last match went. It was as humbling in a way as if I’d lost.
“Sorry, you had to see that one, Coach.”
“Learn from it and move on to the next match.”
“He had the answer for everything I did.”
“Except what you improvised at the end.”
“That was luck.”
“That was instinct. You’re a champion, Brent. Your opponent was not — not yet. Champions always find a way to win.”
In all the confusion of heading toward the locker room to shower and get dressed, I didn’t notice Pam’s approach until she startled me. She wrapped her arms around my neck and paused my progress with a supple kiss.
“Excuse me, Ms. Roberts, but is that allowed?” I asked as I drew back.
“I decided it’s okay.”
“I hope you didn’t see any of that.”
“I couldn’t watch. I heard about it, though.”
“Shane hung tough.”
“That’s why I was worried.”
“So was I.”
She smiled. “He told me what you said to him after the match.”
“It was the truth.”
“After that, you’d think he’d won the tournament.”
“I think he’s better than Heath. And he could beat Mike Smith, but they are a lot alike in their styles. Shane’s smarter and quicker, though. The good news is next year he’ll only have to worry about Patrick Loeffler.”
“Do I know him?” she asked.
“He’s from my league. Shane will know him. He’s seen him. I don’t know if they’ve wrestled yet. He’s good, too. Next year, this championship will be between them. That’s my prediction.”
“I’ll tell him.”
“I’ve been so busy, I haven’t paid attention, how’s your team doing?”
“Shane was the first loss.”
“Wow. Sorry about that.”
She shrugged. “I told the coach before the tournament started, I had split allegiances if you two wrestled. He understood that.”
“So, you get to come tomorrow, though?”
“Yeah, there are still seven wrestlers in the tournament for us.”
“Same as us.”
“All the team is coming too, even Shane. Besides, I owe you a victory kiss when you win the finals match, right?”
“As I recall, that was the plan. But I thought — well — I’m not complaining or anything, but what was the kiss before?” We arrived outside the locker room doors.
“Call it a down payment.”
I chuckled. “I’ll be looking forward to collecting on the principle with interest, then.”
“I gotta get dressed.”
“Do you have to go now?”
“If you’re quick, I’ll still be here.”
“I can do that.”
Taking it as a challenge I showered quickly and then dressed in my street clothes. All told, it took less than five minutes. My hair was still wet as I pushed the door open, and I saw her standing there.
Hand in hand, we walked toward the exits but remained just inside the door, out of the chilly wind that swept into the corridor anytime someone entered or exited. Waiting for our individual groups to assemble and be counted before boarding the buses for the ride home, we continued talking.
“It’s going to be late when we get home tonight,” she said.
“I know. Maybe we say our goodnights now and see each other back here in the morning,” I offered.
“I really love hearing your voice before I sleep.”
“I’ll call then.”
“I love hearing your voice, too. I’m not sure I could sleep if I didn’t say goodnight.”
She kissed me.
She knew the same as I did, a lot depended on what happened tomorrow, and then the next day. The harsh truth of single-elimination was something she’s been through in tennis. Last year, when both her brothers went through suffering and self-doubt, she was there with them when each of them lost in the state semi-finals.
For all I knew, this could be my year to go to the state tournament. The more I thought about it the less confidence I had, though. I struggled too much against Shane. What would tomorrow bring? My season could end at any time in my next match, and the matches after that would only be progressively harder.
Pam and I remained together for as long as possible while our two teams formed. When her coach insisted that she come, I hugged her close and we shared a quick kiss. “Around eleven,” she said. I nodded my understanding of the appointed time to call her.
“Are you ready now?” Coach Ellis asked, expressing some displeasure with my tardy response to his repeated requests.
Coach Friske patted my back as he followed me out to the bus. We were the last ones on, bringing up the rear, a familiar place for the two heavyweights, the experienced coach and his protégé anchoring the team.
Although it was uncharacteristic, Coach Friske sat across the aisle from me at the back of the bus, the place usually reserved for Jason. For whatever reason, Annie was talking to him. When he boarded the bus, she scooted over and invited him to sit beside her. They appeared to be having a good time and laughing together. The idea of the two of them made me smile.
Completely unexpected, I would have never thought they were right for each other. Then again, as I thought about it, it was kind of obvious. Both were nice, considerate people. She was open; he was honest. He was sincere; she was caring. Who knows how things will work out once a door is left ajar? Go Jason! Go Annie!
“Go Eagles!” I blurted out. I’m not sure what inspired it, but it seemed right. It drew a chorus of echoing responses that the other wrestlers and the cheerleaders turned into a chant.
The dome lights came on and Coach Ellis stood, holding onto a handrail as the bus started to pull out from the parking lot. “We’re right where we need to be to win this tournament. I’m glad Brent started this off in the right spirit. What he did for us tonight was remove one of our obstacles. In case no one has noticed, there’s an abundance of red and white tights left out there. I’m sure you have noticed their cheerleaders were busy all day, as busy as ours. Tipp City is our competition for the team title, guys and gals. I don’t have to tell you how good they are. We’ve faced them in tournaments before. They have excellent coaching. Some of you will be wrestling their best tomorrow — ”
“They’ll be wrestling our best, too!” I shouted.
“And that’s exactly right, Brent. You all deserve to be where you are. You’ve supported one another all season and it has gotten each of us where we are tonight. Never forget that.” Then a wry smile covered his face. “Maybe the reason Brent’s girlfriend dates him is she knows there’s nobody better than a Countryside Eagle!”
“Go Eagles!” The cheerleaders chanted, inciting the team to join them.
Coach Friske reached across the aisle and patted me on the back. “That was good. He needed to address that, and so did you.”
“What? About Pam and me?”
“The guys need to know you’re still part of this team, Brent. Usually, it’s none of our business who you date, but unfortunately, she’s the enemy right now.”
“We’ve both addressed that, I think. She wasn’t even cheering when I was wrestling Shane.”
“You know many of their wrestlers and their cheerleaders.”
“How could I not? I know some better than others. Shane’s really the only one I’d call a friend, though. He dates Brenda, a cheerleader who’s Pam’s best friend.”
“None of our other guys know any of them, Brent. From my perspective, that’s better. Luck of the draw or whatever other reason, Shane was the only one of their wrestlers any of us faced today — ”
“And I struggled.”
“Yeah. You and I know why that happened,” the coach said.
“It had nothing to do with me knowing him or me dating Pam. We all did what we had to do.”
“Shane’s good. He’s improved a lot,” the coach allowed.
“As for Pam, she’s going to be busy all day. I’ll see her early on and probably not again until we’re leaving.”
“That’s what you have planned.”
“She’s taking some heat from her team, too. We don’t discuss it, but it’s there because we’re rivals. I didn’t realize we were their enemy until she told me every one of her wrestlers won except for Shane.”
“You diminished their chances to beat us, but because of Shane and his points in the other rounds, they are in the lead. We’re second. I think if he beat you, he might have won the title, too.”
I nodded. “He’s that good.”
“Look, I don’t know what they think about us, and really, I don’t care. Whether they see us as the upstarts or the ones to beat, we’re just as good as they are. So far, we’ve been the underdog all season. I’m kind of used to that role. Maybe they’ll underestimate us, but I don’t think that’s going to happen, not with their coaching. They expected Shane to lose. They had to. After the season you’ve had…well, what surprised them is how close Shane came to winning.”
I looked away. “It wasn’t a good match for me.”
“Because you lost your focus, Brent.”
“I don’t think so.”
“You have Mike and Mark ahead of you tomorrow. That’s tough enough. But there’s also a kid name Winston you have up next. Then you have either Johnson or Jones. All of them are seniors, same as you.”
“What’s different is they have been wrestling for longer.”
“You’re smarter, quicker, and at least as strong as any of them. But they are heavier, and they have the experience. But we’ve minimized that with our matches in practice.”
“They know I can be beaten. They know from watching the match with Shane.”
“You were on the mat for a long time. You showed the other coaches a lot of your cards.”
“I had to.”
“I’m not saying you didn’t, but now it’s tougher. Everyone was gunning for you before. Now they have some ammunition. You gotta get back on track. Next match, you need to make a statement quickly and right to the point. You need everyone in the building to ask, what the hell was that?”