More prospective high school wrestlers needed
The results are constantly, in a word, deflating.
And without trying to sound like an alarmist, it appears to the more-than-casual observer that high school wrestling in the state of New Hampshire now rests on a precarious precipice.
Participation numbers in wrestling are down, way down in fact. Forfeits and double forfeits are way up. Part of it has to do with the changing dynamic in student populations, the cycle points to lower high school enrollments nearly everywhere.
But part of it has to do with the sport, its nature, the commitment needed to succeed on the mat and of course this generation of children being brought up and stimulated in the mainstream electronics age.
To this day, I am stunned too often by the lack of cooperation between the football and wrestling programs at different schools.
If any one key could be pointed to for success in wrestling and numbers on the mat, it would be a kinship between football and wrestling.
One football head coach in the region chose to speak off the record on the subject.
“Our (wrestling coach) has nothing to do with football, and the kids really don’t either for the most part,” said the coach, whose program shares little crossover.
That fact is alarming.
Short of offseason weight training, wrestling can be a potential lineman’s top weapon.
The balance and leverage learned on the mat by your body in wrestling translates perfectly to football.
“We need the support of other teams and coaches,” says Bishop Guertin coach Paul Rousseau, who runs one of the more successful mat programs in the region. “Where are all the football and lacrosse players? Why are they not wrestling.”
Coaches must work together, especially in this age where potential student athletes can be pulled in a million directions.
The days where a coach can be standoffish, because maybe a certain football coach demands too much of the athlete’s time or a wrestling coach asks a football player to drop weight instead of adding muscle because it best benefits the lineup are over.
The lack of wrestlers certainly diminishes the product. Forfeits and double forfeits are now the norm often among the smaller programs, to the point where it kind of makes the matches on the mat insignificant as far as the team scores go.
Take Nashua North’s duel with Alvirne on Wednesday night, a 36-30 Titans win.
Nine of the 14 weight classes were contested. There could have been some serious drama in the event, especially when Broncos’ 182-pounder Nick Maniatakos pinned his Titan foe to break a stalemate and give Alvirne a 30-24 lead.
But North then accepted a pair of forfeit wins at 195 and 220 and everyone headed for the exits with a taste of dissatisfaction in their mouths.
This is not a knock on either program. Both first-year head coaches, Chad Zibolis at North and Mike Gregory at Alvirne, have been dogged workers in attempting to attract talent to the mat.
“Look at the great job coach Zibolis did getting his football players to wrestle,” said BG’s Rousseau. “I feel that should happen at all schools.”
There’s simply more to it than that when it comes to building programs.
Sure, the feeder systems are in place, be it with clubs building a youth base or even in the schools.
One of the area public high schools, truly prospering right now numbers wise, is Merrimack High, where coach Tim McMahon welcomes upwards of 40 candidates a day to his room for practice.
It’s no coincidence that the MYA, Merrimack’s youth wrestling program, is one of the most active and aggressive in the region.
“I think it starts with keeping the kids that come out for the team on the team,” said McMahon. “My predecessor, Sean Cullinane, used to tell me ‘You have to get these kids to love the sport and the team first. Once you do that, then you can run them through a wall.’
“I do think there are coaches throughout the country that take the opposite approach of ‘trying to weed out the weak kids’ in the first few weeks of practice. Our goal is always to keep as many kids as possible on the team – regardless of athletic ability. Sometimes, in fact, many times, those kids who couldn’t tie their shoes as freshmen are scoring points for the varsity by senior year.”
Along with potential champs and state placers like Anson Dewar and Adam Presa, McMahon also has numerous competitors like Caleb Hartford, a second-year wrestler who went 0-for-2017-18.
“He was beside himself when he got his first win last weekend,” beamed McMahon with pride.
It is victories like that where coaches need to rally around for the good of the programs and the student athletes.
“Today’s kids are dealing with a lot of pressure – in school, at home and online. Many of the kids that come to us just need an escape from these pressures,” McMahon said. “In three years, nobody will care how many wins they had or who they beat (or lost to) in the finals of a tournament. The reality is that our programs have a much greater impact than wins and titles. Sometimes, being a part of our wrestling team is the only thing keeping a student in school. Sometimes, it’s a place to be when home is not somewhere they want to be (or should be). Sometimes, it’s the first group of real friends some of these kids have ever had.”
Therein lies the true spirit of what high school wrestling should/could be. They are trying at Merrimack. Hard.
Perhaps some of the other struggling programs around the region might want to take note. It has to be for more than just the elite kids.
Wrestling has to find its way back into the regular rotation of high school sports, not just some niche for the ultra-tough and uber-driven.
“Kids have so many choices of how to spend their time today – especially as more and more coaches and parents alike push for year-round sports specialization,” said McMahon. “This, in my opinion, has led to kids quitting (or not even trying) other sports that years ago they would have stuck with. As coaches, this means we have to do a much better job of engaging our athletes year round.
“This doesn’t mean telling them they have to wrestle in the Spring, Summer and Fall. It means we have to make them feel part of the program and connected with their teammates and coaches even while they are playing other sports.”
Wrestling needs change. Not in its rules but in its attitude. All the sports these days need to coexist and get along to succeed. Wrestling may need it just to survive.