The Team Wrestling Machine — Bring It: Chapter 24

As much as I wanted to be with Pam, I knew better than to look in her direction. The coaches were not completely right, but right enough about her effect on me. Although she gave me enormous inspiration, she was a potential distraction whenever she was near. She understood that.

Looking at the guys on my team, subtle differences between the other six and me were obvious. Perhaps it was because I personally knew some of the wrestlers I’d faced along the way. In pursuit of my dream, I destroyed theirs. The same was true of every match, though. But for the others, not knowing the other person allowed detachment. I wondered whether winning meant as much to me as it might have to Mike, Mark, Shane, or any of the other wrestlers I’d defeated along the way.

Other team members were not talking about wrestling. It struck me as an intuitive genius. They did not want to think about the individual pressures ahead.

Kevin gathered ‘The Magnificent Seven’ together for a huddle. It was quick and spontaneous. I’m not sure the coaches noticed. It felt necessary for regrouping, though. What Kevin said was exactly what a team captain should say.

“We can’t let up, guys. We’ve been underestimated all season. After we qualified for the district, we were slighted. Most of us weren’t even seeded. But we won because we were there for one another! Here, Ralph and Brent are ranked higher in the state than their seeding. How does that make sense? But the guys we’ve beaten already won’t forget their matches with us. Same as it has been all season, we gotta go after it for ourselves and take it. Huddle here, guys. Break on three. One, two, three.”

We cheered loud and in unison, “Go Eagles!” That alone drew the coaches’ attention.

Businesslike, Ralph approached the mat and stared down his adversary. About a minute later, he returned to the individual hugs of each member of his team. “Anybody who’s Columbus bound, the line forms right here!” He indicated the space behind him.

Tommy did his thing, just as we had come to expect. It was close, hard-fought, and in the end, he somehow pulled out the victory. I’d learned never to count anyone out, not with this team’s support.

Chuck had been hot and cold, whether he won quickly or struggled. He was pitted against a superior wrestler based on wins and losses — and his past titles. He was the defending regional champion and state runner-up. By all rights, Chuck should not last one round. Yet, Chuck stepped onto the mat as if they were equals. He defeated champions, ranked and unranked competitors, taking each match in stride, confident that if he wrestled hard and stayed focused, not only could he win but also, he would advance to the next round. Although he was an underdog, he’d been that all along. I felt the edge Chuck had was his refusal to submit. He believed no one in the tournament could beat him. He wouldn’t settle for runner-up.

As I sat waiting for my appointed match, I was mentally calculating the team points. If Chuck won, we would at least share the regional team title. I said nothing to anyone else, but even with losses from Gary, Timmy, Kevin, and I, we would receive second-place points. No other team had three titles, and only one, the one with which we were tied, had enough wrestlers left to post firsts or seconds to make it a contest. I wasn’t sure anyone else knew, not even the coaches. But I did.

In Gary’s match, few points were scored throughout the first two rounds. In the third round, that changed. Gary took control and dominated from the whistle and won by pin within the first minute.

Timmy won a decision by five points, though the match really didn’t seem that close. Kevin won by two points in a hard-fought match that went down to the last few seconds, and it could have gone either way. Our destiny continued, twenty victories on the day with one match left. Kevin told me I had to win because whoever heard of the ‘Magnificent Six?’ That broke some of the tension for me.

“This is your ticket to Columbus, right here,” Ralph told me.

Everything else was decided. Mine was the last match of the tournament, once again. I stepped onto the mat looking for the conclusion and to hopefully add the exclamation point for the team’s efforts. The man standing across the circle from me was someone I didn’t know. Coach Friske was right. It was the best way for both parties not to know each other well. There could be rivalry among friends, but when the prize mattered more than the friendship, someone must feel the pain.

Never having paid any attention to Robert Tork before a couple of matches ago, I had rapidly learned about him, though it was not nearly enough to feel comfortable with the impending direct confrontation. He had reached the finals with skill and sharp execution. He was quick, strong, smart, and had sixty pounds on me. There was no doubt he could beat me. The question was, would I let him?

An intangible I had going for me was I didn’t feel up to losing. Tork was a local boy from a Cincinnati suburb. He was challenging a stubborn farm kid from a cornfield called nowhere. Regardless of the confidence, he exuded borne of his four years of experience, he’d never confronted the likes of me. He wasn’t as good as he thought. Proving that to him was my sole mission.

Despite my most recent match and how I won or rather didn’t lose, I had developed a reputation for a quick start to the match. Throwing my speed and strength against the competitor in an overwhelming way was my trademark. The intensity, though it consumed a lot of energy in a short time, was difficult to counter. However, if it could be resisted, it would leave my opponent with a huge advantage until I recovered from the tremendous expenditure of energy.

Having seen Tork’s previous two matches there was no doubt in my mind that my usual approach was wrong. To beat him, I had to come up with something new, or a wrinkle neither he nor anyone else had seen in any of my prior matches. Our levels of conditioning were close. I dared not assume anything different. So, I couldn’t count on outlasting him. Time would expire before either of us was worn down.

Coach Friske gave me a few suggestions. His advice underscored what I already knew. He expected Tork to attack hard and fast. If that proved true, he suggested I do to him what the coach always did to me whenever we wrestled. I had never used the technique because it was not part of my ordinary style. I wasn’t certain I could execute it as effectively as Coach Friske did, but maybe I didn’t need to. After all, I wasn’t wrestling the coach.

When the match commenced, immediately Tork went after my strength. My counters were clean and precise as he likely expected, and he overcame them. It was the intense, unrelenting barrage I expected. He wanted to intimidate me, and throw me into a defensive state of mind, leaving me no time for anything on offense. Although I wasn’t laying back and letting him control the tempo, I was not effectively managing him either. Seeking opportunities, whenever I saw an opening, it closed before I had the chance to seize upon it. The first period ended without either of us scoring, but clearly, it wasn’t for lacking attempts.

Maybe what I did in the first period frustrated Tork, but he didn’t show it. Stone-faced, he returned to center circle to resume our match. Upon the blowing of the referee’s whistle, it was more of the same. He tried everything as if it were a test to see if I knew how to counter his odd barrage of combinations. He was challenging not only my knowledge of techniques but also my experience. Only my discipline honed over repeated matches against my coach and his chicanery prevented me from being lured into some ploy, falling prey to a move couched in deception. So far, I responded to everything in exactly the only way I could. It became obvious that we were equally matched, at least for the moment. The second period ended as the first did, scoreless.

Never had I been in this kind of match. I wasn’t tired or frustrated as much as I was curious how or when either of us would capitalize on an advantage. Although there was a provision for a tiebreaker, I’d never seen it employed in a match and didn’t know how it worked. But it seemed possible this might be my first experience.

“He’s not ambidextrous; you are,” Coach Friske reminded me between rounds. “He’s left-handed. You can tell from the way he stands.”

“I know. That’s part of what’s bothering me.”

“Well, he’s coming at you assuming you’re right-handed because that’s your stance. You do that because it is usually how you defend against other right-handers. Change that, shift your feet around.”

“I’m not used to doing that.”

“You’ve done it a couple of times, though. If it doesn’t work, keep alternating. It will only confuse him more. I’ll bet he’s never wrestled against someone who can come at him from either side with equal power. I can almost guarantee that.”

Nodding as I returned the match, I decided it was worth a try. Nothing else was working.

We stood on opposite sides of the center circle. Then, I shifted my feet. The move startled Tork. Apparently, he wasn’t used to wrestling against lefties either. He started to make an adjustment as the whistle blew. It was enough of an advantage for me to seize, scoring an immediate hip throw takedown. With my opponent on his back, I prepared for a pin. Despite his counter move, I muscled through it for a near fall. Continuing with my strength, shifting my weight to bear down on him, I exposed his shoulders for another near fall, a three-point one this time around, one count away from ending the match.

Up by seven points, I throttled Tork’s attempt to reverse me, keeping one or the other of his shoulders exposed to the mat while the other was only a fraction of an inch away. Awarded another three-point near fall, I was up by ten with a minute remaining in the match.

Resulting from an unexpected strategy, he reversed, and instantly, he was in control. Time was running out for him. It was ten to two. He must pin me to win. He had me on my back, my shoulders exposed briefly for a two-point near fall. I was as close to being pinned as I had been for a long time. He countered my attempt at a neck bridge, but I resisted, outpowering him to free my arm and preventing pinning myself in the process.

With ten seconds left, I reversed him, making the score twelve to six. He fought against my holds, trying to reverse me into a last-second pin, but it was too late. The decision advanced me to the state tournament as the Southwestern Regional Champion, completing the historic continuation of Countryside’s incredible wrestling season, advancing seven wrestlers to the state championships where we stood a good chance of claiming that team title as well.

As I stood beside Kevin and Ralph, waiting for the awards session to begin, I looked at the regional trophies. “I’m seriously concerned about the size of those things.”

Kevin chuckled. “I remembered to bring my tools. They’re in my car. First thing I did last night when I got home was raid my dad’s toolbox.”

“I’ll be fine, then. But what about tomorrow? How big are the state trophies?”

Ralph shook his head. “You should be worried about the last two guys you have to get past.”

“Yeah, seems like a lot of us struggled in that last round.”

“The guys we’re up against are as good as we are,” Ralph said. “That’s no surprise, but it makes the matches long and painful.”

When the ceremony began, Ralph was the first of us to receive his award. Holding the trophy aloft, he turned to wave to his parents who were in the audience. Tommy’s turn came several minutes later. His mother, aunt, and older brother gave him a standing ovation. When he returned to stand alongside Ralph, from behind, I grabbed both around the waist and lifted them from the ground in an awkward sort of hug.

Chuck couldn’t wait for his name to be called. His entire family was in attendance. Tears in his eyes, but grinning from ear to ear, he returned to the rest of the team to receive our congratulations.

Gary’s father and uncle were in the audience, as they had been throughout the season, never missing a match. They stood applauding with pride when his name was called. When he stepped down from the awards stand, Sandy, his girlfriend who was one of our cheerleaders wrapped her arms around his neck and gave him a kiss.

Timmy’s big sister and her husband came with his mother to see him win the tournament. When he returned to the team, Kevin pulled him in for a hug. I hugged him next.

Kevin’s dad and brother came to see him. When he received his trophy, he turned toward them and lifted it triumphantly. When he stepped down from the stand, Coach Ellis shook his hand and asked him something to which he nodded. He remained standing beside the two coaches while I approached to receive my award.

Pam and Mr. Roberts stood cheering for me as I accepted my trophy. It meant a lot more to me than I thought it would. Tears welled in my eyes as I stepped down and received a hug from Kevin. “Hey, get Timmy and have him come here.”

“Okay.”

After we returned, Kevin explained the coaches wanted the seniors with them when they received the tournament team trophy. We stood together on the stand for the award, the cheerleaders and the remainder of our team gathered in support. Several newspapers were represented with their cameramen and reporters, including The Springfield Sun’s ‘Bullshit’ Bill Winters.

Coach Ellis paused to answer a few questions from the reporters but snagged me by the collar as I was starting to leave. “Bill, you know Brent Woods, right?”

“That’s Brent with an ‘r’ and Woods with an ‘s’,” I said.

“My apologies for that error last Sunday. We’ll make sure we get it right this time.”

I nodded and shook his hand. The coach patted me on the back, and I continued to the mini-celebration among my team — my friends.

I started for the locker room, following the other guys when I saw Mark Heath leaning over the hand railing in the stands. He had been in the audience all along. I opened the floor gate from the inside and motioned for him to step through and join me. We exchanged a hug.

“You look one hell of a lot better than the last time I saw you.”

“Breathing makes a difference.”

“That was scary, man.”

“My coach told me what happened. I wanted to tell you I’m grateful for how you and your team’s trainer reacted.”

“Your trainer was out there quickly, too.”

“I know, but you guys didn’t have to be there, but you were.”

“We did what we needed to do, Mark. I’m sorry the match ended like that.”

“Me too. Anyway, I had the worst headache of my life when I came to.”

“I heard you were going to be okay right after I beat Mike.”

“Obviously, you didn’t need to be told what to do. Now, you’re going to the state, my man.”

“Yeah. It’s surreal.”

“It’s all a game, Brent. In case that’s never occurred to you, that’s all any sport is. You take the luck, or you make the luck, but it’s always a game.”

“I’m still making more than I’m taking.”

“Winning at state is a ‘gotta be’ thing, otherwise you won’t make it. You need to decide that nothing will stop you. And you hope that on your way you don’t run into an opponent like you. Everyone is close in ability from here on out. So, it’s a lot like wrestling yourself at times. They wouldn’t be there if they weren’t winners. Just be more of a winner than anyone else.”

“You sound like my coach.”

“Barry Friske, right?”

“Yeah, why?”

“He wrestled my oldest brother in high school, at the state championships.”

“Really, I didn’t know that. You’re quite the baby of the family, then.”

“Yeah, tell me about it. It was a surprise for my mom. She was forty-two when I was born.”

“Hey, my mom was thirty-nine when she had me.”

“You know what it’s like then. Having older siblings makes you tougher in some ways. My brother lives in Dayton. He was at the arena last night and saw your coach.”

“Recognized him?”

“Yeah.”

“Small world.”

“It is.” He drew a deep breath. “So, I’m going to Michigan, as my brother did. They’re giving me a full-ride.”

“Congratulations.”

“Are you going to wrestle in college?”

“I’m going to Purdue but not for sports.”

“You should wrestle, give me another.”

I smiled. “I’ll think about it, okay?”

“I know you need to get ready to go. And your lady is waiting.” He glanced back at the gate where Pam was standing.

“I’m glad you were here, and that you’re okay, man.”

“Me too. Tell your trainer I said thanks.”

“His name’s Jason. I’ll tell him.”

“And you, too, man. I really mean it. Thanks.” He shook my hand, and again we hugged briefly.

As Mark left the arena floor, he opened the gate for Pam to step through. Immediately I handed her my trophy, which was taller than she was. She set it on the floor, and I slipped my medal around her neck for safekeeping. Then she kissed me before I headed into the locker room. I promised to hurry.

She and her father met me outside the locker room. We talked briefly while she pinned my new medal onto the gold letter ‘C’ on my varsity jacket. Now, I had four: Lake Invitational, Mad River Valley League, District Seven, and Southwestern Regional. Chuckling as I looked down, I asked, “Is there room for the State?”

“I left room right there.” She pointed to the spot, then kissed me. “I’m so proud of you!”

“Oh, before I forget, Kevin, the 185-pound wrestler, wants to know if Catherine is seeing anyone.”

“What?”

“I promised I’d ask.”

Pam laughed. “Actually, she isn’t. But isn’t she too old for him?”

“He’s eighteen. He’ll be nineteen in August. I remember we had a birthday thing with an ice cream cake for him after football practice one day last summer.”

“She’s almost a junior in college, Brent!”

“Yeah, but all of you started school early, so she’s younger than the usual junior, right?”

“I’ll mention it to her tonight. Catherine should be home by now. She was giving David and Stephen a ride.”

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