February 26, 2008

The True Warriors of College Athletics

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As an athlete, I was the very definition of average. I was always good enough to make the annual all-star team as an aspiring baseball player, but never seemed to hit higher than No. 5 in the batting order. As a basketball player, I was the Steve Kerr (and that’s a good thing by the way) of the JV squad, but watched from the sidelines anytime our varsity team (led by protein-addicted postgraduates) battled another highly-touted prep team.
Now I am not saying this to induce your sympathy nor to try to plagiarize the self-deprecating humor that Assistant Sports Editor Cory Bennett has perfected in his columns. I merely mention my laughable sports career to underscore the point that I simply don’t have many memories as an athlete to hang my hat on. I never hit that game-winning homerun in the bottom of the seventh against juggernaut Post 31. I never hit two clutch free throws to seal a victory in the New Jersey state tournament. And I will certainly never be able to sit my grandchild down and tell him old war stories about when grandpa singlehandedly defeated Andover in front of thousands of screaming fans.
However, there is one memory from high school athletics that I will never forget, and it has nothing to do with my performance on the field. Just before my senior season on the baseball team, our coach told us to wear gym clothes and to meet him in the wrestling room. The next two hours were among the longest of my life, as coach Dennehy cranked up the heat above 90 degrees and made us relentlessly sprint, jog, hop and crawl around the mat. He smiled from the corner as we hopped around on one leg like idiots, gasping for air. Some kids threw up, some kids collapsed in exhaustion, but I somehow made it through, and probably lost 10 pounds of sweat in the process.
I feel like every high school athlete remembers the one practice that mentally broke them. It’s not a feeling that you can ever truly describe, just one that you know you don’t want to experience again. After covering the wrestling team for almost two full years now, I have always wondered exactly what it takes to make it through the infamously difficult Tuesday practice at one of the elite collegiate wrestling programs in the country. I’ve always wondered just how close head coach Rob Koll pushes his athletes to their breaking points. So on an otherwise unspectacular Tuesday afternoon, I decided to finally see it for myself. What I witnessed left me dumbfounded.
As soon as I walked into the Friedman Wrestling Center and inhaled a deep breath of the uniquely pungent wrestling room stench, my mind raced back to that unforgettable practice. Fighting back those painful memories, I took a seat against a wall near the corner just as coach Koll started his pre-practice pep talk. With all 30 athletes and three assistant coaches sprawled out around him, Koll started on a light note. Wearing a Cornell wrestling shirt, matching gray shorts and long white socks, the head coach shot the proverbial crap with his squad for five minutes before turning to more serious matters.
Pointing to the countdown clock that read “30 days, 1 hour and 5 minutes until nationals,” Koll engaged his team about the pointlessness of rankings.
“They mean absolutely nothing,” he said. “We have guys in this room who are far better than the guy who will ultimately win a national championship. We also have guys who are far worse talent-wise but who just won’t let themselves lose.”
He used the example of senior (and unranked) Mike Rodriguez beating the No. 8 ranked Penn wrestler at 125 pounds in a previous dual meet. The victory would ultimately mean the difference between winning and losing not only the dual meet itself, but also the Ivy League championship.
“So my point is this,” he continued. “Don’t look at seeds. … We’re three weeks away from the ECACs and until then, you guys need to train like crazy, sleep a ton, and eat perfectly.”
Freshman D.J. Meagher proceeded to tell two jokes (a daily tradition at wrestling practices), one eliciting silence, and the other prompting gregarious laughter before the team rose to action. Koll jumped up with the team and screamed “Let’s go” before playfully smacking freshman Mike Grey on the butt. I couldn’t help but chuckle to myself at the unique fraternal bond between Koll and his athletes. If the Friedman Center is “a frat house without the vices,” as coach Koll often refers to it, then he is the well-respected president.
Someone fired up Friedman’s state-of-the-art sound system as the team started out with a casual, clock-wise jog around the mat. After several laps, they began to perform a series of acrobatic somersaults, flips and rolls, rotating the action after every lap. Eventually, the wrestlers graduated to backward rolls and all-out splits to break their falls.
At this point, I was somewhat taken aback. Just like watching an actual wrestling match, witnessing hordes of massive men wearing incredibly tight shorts while performing what can only be described as purely gymnastic maneuvers can make even the most secure guy feel a little uneasy. This is particularly true given that a quasi love song started blasting from the speakers just as the wrestlers finished their last flips. That type of song choice is questionable at best, but I digress.
Then the real fun began. After the team’s “light” 15-minute warm-up, Koll instructed his guys to pair up with one another by relative weight class and practice particular moves.
The first such move was a one-legged takedown, followed by a behind-the-back lift and throw down and then a double-leg spear-like takedown. After giving the final instructions, Koll shouted “70 more minutes, keep your speed up, don’t pace yourself.”
It might not sound like much, but repeatedly grappling with a jacked up wrestler is incredibly hard. I recommend you try it with one of your biggest friends, just to see how it feels. Wrestle one another for as long as you can and see who gives up due to exhaustion first; I bet neither of you makes it past 10 minutes.
I could tell by the increased frequency of grunting and the somewhat lethargic movements of the wrestlers that they were beginning to tire. They looked like they starting to feel some pain, but I also had a feeling that they were nowhere near their limit.
To my left, several guys who I assumed were rehabbing injuries pedaled on stationary bikes and freshman Justin Kerber worked out solo with assistant coach Tyler Baier. Kerber held a massive, padded bar above his head as he sprinted from one end of the mat to the other. He would then do 15 perfect pushups after every set and repeated the process over again.
Although every athlete wasn’t doing the same thing, they all had one thing in common: movement. No one would ever be standing still — coach Koll made sure of that.
Back at the main event, 13 different pairings continued their structured battles on the mat. Two of the most entertaining matches were between juniors Josh Arnone and Steve Anceravage directly in front of me and junior captain Jordan Leen paired with assistant coach Cory Cooperman in the center of the mat. In both matches, it seemed like neither wrestler took a second off and were treating practice just like a real competition. I almost got pummeled by Anceravage on several occasions as the duo grappled dangerously close to my seat on the wall.
Leen often used his explosive quickness and agility to take down Cooperman (who finished No. 3 in the NCAA tournament twice at Lehigh), but he just never seemed to gain the upper hand versus the well-balanced assistant coach. Arnone had a clear weight advantage against Anceravage but Steve’s quickness and willpower made it a relatively even match.
Oh and by the way, the room was incredibly hot. Koll apparently took a page from my high school coach’s playbook and jacked the heat above 90 degrees. I started sweating just sitting against a wall.
Coach Koll then used his whistle and ordered the pairings to engage each other from the “down position.” In this drill, one wrestler would kneel on the mat and try to escape the clutches of his partner above him. With every blow of the whistle, the room exploded into action. Extremities flew all over the place, sweat dripped off of every body and moans and grunts almost drowned out the speaker system.
By the time Koll stopped blowing his whistle, the wrestlers had repeated this move close to 40 times without a break. I kid you not. The team then went back into a light jog around the mat.
“Oh f—,” one wrestler exclaimed. But he didn’t have to say anything, his eyes told the whole story. He was feeling excruciating pain, creeping closer and closer to his breaking point.
“46 minutes left, pick it up” Koll yelled.
You hav­­e got to be kidding me, the practice was not even half over! All I could think about was that baseball practice four years ago and how they put my “defining practice” to absolute shame.
This process repeated numerous times. For 10 minutes coach Koll would tell each pairing to practice one move or another. The pairs would proceed to beat each other up and then everyone would jog out the pain. After each cycle, I grew more and more amazed at how much abuse these wrestlers’ bodies could endure. And most astounding of all, no one took a break.
With 15 minutes left, each pairing finished off their competition with a fierce freestyle match.
Then, in one last hurrah, every wrestler lined up on one side of the Friedman Center and completed numerous sets of sprints, one-legged hops, and crawls across the arena in two waves. These drills, which the wrestlers have lovingly dubbed “Koll crawls,” are calisthenics which are designed to simulate the quick, crouched-over movements that one needs to perform while completely exhausted to win a tough wrestling match.
After many sets of these crawls, the group jogged one last time before huddling together in the middle of the mat.
Upon breaking the huddle, the grapplers looked more like zombies than elite collegiate athletes. Anceravage, who looked particularly pained, told me “Arnone broke me today man. He just mentally broke me out there.”
A few minutes later, Koll approached me and jokingly asked, “Was I right about us turning around our season or what?”
Yes, you were right coach — and I have a feeling it was more than just luck.