Dec. 3, 2019 — “Wrestling is a sport of mastery,” Siuslaw Wrestling coach Neil Wartnik said. “It’s the mastering of one person against the other. Who’s going to be the more dominant person? There’s nowhere to hide. We’re not dressed in shoulder pads and helmets. People see our face. They see our bodies. That’s a lot of pressure.”
As the crowd watches, before the whistle blows, the questions begin to swirl in the wrestler’s mind.
“What’s this guy going to do? You can’t control what the other person is going to do,” Wartnik said. “You can’t control their strengths and weaknesses, and you don’t know how good they are. Or maybe you do, and you prepare for those strengths — but then you get on the mat and they developed a new strength you’re unaware of. You’re always battling that sense of, ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen.’”
Wartnik likens wrestling to gymnastics, “only the bar is attacking you, and it has the ability to make you really look bad,” he said.
To prepare for that, wrestlers have to be well-trained, “and so knowledgeable in in their own skin, so clear on what their game plan is and how they’re going to attack situations, that they don’t have to think about it. Because you don’t have time to think about it.”
Monday night, Wartnik was sitting on a mat at Siuslaw High School and talking about the intricacies of wrestling. The team was packing its bags and streaming out, periodically asking Wartnik about scheduling. They were finishing up the first practice since the Thanksgiving break and the pressure of was on.
“Over the break, it’s always weird. People are traveling, people get sick,” Wartnik said. “We had practices, but we only had a fragment of the group.”
On Friday, they’ll be competing in their first tournament of the season at the Deven Dawson Harrisburg Invitational at Harrisburg High School.
“As a coach, I’m thinking, ‘Friday, we wrestle our first tournament. How can we get ready when we’re not together?”
He knows that it’s something that other teams in the state are dealing with the same issues, but it still feels like a rush at the last minute to prepare. But from what Wartnik saw on Monday, the team is looking good.
“For the first day back from break, we had a good practice — and we’ve got three more practices before Friday,” he said. “We’ll do the best we can before Friday. That’ll be our first look at where we’re at, and it may be a mixed bag. We’re hopeful that they’ll perform well.”
Winning the Friday tournament isn’t the goal for Wartnik.
“The thing you’ll notice about the best teams is that they’re much better at the end of the year than they are in December. It’s the conditioning.”
Unlike football or basketball, wrestling tournaments don’t count for an overall goal. Each tournament is practice for the state-qualifying match. And even in that moment, the best laid plans can go to the wayside.
“I was watching a dual meet yesterday between Arizona State and Penn State,” recalled Wartnik. Penn State was on a 60 duel-match winning streak that lasted almost five years. Arizona State wasn’t expected to win.
“There was a situation where the Penn State wrestler was in a pretty good situation, but in the span of a second he was on his back,” Wartnik said. “Arizona State made a lightning quick adjustment, applied a hold and put them on their back. How do you prepare for that?”
In the span of one second, Penn State’s five-year-long winning streak ended — and the underdog came out on top.
For Wartnik, who wrestled at Stanford under the late, famed coach Dave Schultz, the thrill of wrestling is all about preparing for the unknown.
“I love it because I’m mentoring people physically, conditioning people mentally and there’s even a spiritual portion of it,” he said. “It takes a lot within to go to that mat and face your unknowns.”
Of all his experiences at Stanford, he counts his experiences with wrestling as shaping the person he is today.
“I had to learn to deal with pain, with adversity, with managing my weight, with going to practice every day,” Wartnik said. “There were many days that I knew I was going to end up getting beat up for a major stretch of the practice. There’s that test of the soul. We come here to learn something about ourselves.”
Like learning how to manage that pressure, along with discipline, how to face fear and not giving up when the odds are against you.
“Those are the lessons that wrestling taught me. Now, as a coach, getting a chance to pass it on and help them go through their worst battles and deal with their disappointments?” Wartnik asked. “This is really all about mentoring.”
Training for wrestling can be intense. On Monday night, as wresters were trying out their practice moves, there were a lot of laughs and smiles. The kids were having fun.
“That’s what we want it to be,” Wartnik said. “I want my program to be a place of fun, of friendship building and skill building. I also want us to be tough. The thing I’ve noticed over the past couple of years is that there’s a whole lot of gloom and negativity in the world. I want this to be a place where my kids can come and have fun every time. I want it to be a safe place.”
However, to be the kind of team that takes state championships, the training has to be intense.
“If you’re going to watch Jordan Burroughs train, the typical person would say it’s insane, the way they push their body,” he said.
Wartnik brought up famed wrestler Dan Gable who wrestled at Iowa. He would train by wrestling every member of his team, one by one and going up the “weight line.” He would wrestle each teammate, of every weight class, until they couldn’t physically wrestle anymore. When one teammate was exhausted, Gable would then move on to the next person.
“There’s sometimes when I want to elevate the intensity,” Wartnik said about his team. “I want kids to begin stretching their limits. There’s that balance of ‘Let’s make this an enjoyable place, and let’s make this a furnace where we’re going to get tough.’”
While he may not go to the lengths of Dan Gable to get the kids ready, throughout the season the activities and instructions will be intensifying. This is where the tournaments come in.
“I think of the concept of a fire drill or a tsunami drill, why do we do them?” Wartnik asked. “We don’t get into those situations very often but, by golly, if they do happen you want to be prepared.”
Because like Penn State, even the most seasoned players can watch fortunes fall in a split second.
“The only way you can get prepared for something like that is to be in those situations,” said Wartnik. “And there’s one of the things that we struggle with as a team. Our kids get into those situations maybe once or twice a year. Not here, but in a tournament.”
And that’s where the real practice of the season starts, when the players face off against the unknown.
“Our job is to get our kids more skilled in those weird, unexpected situations,” Wartnik said. “As a coach, I need to train my team to know how to react in as many of them as I can. And then put it into a fluid wrestling style. We don’t stop a match when we get into a bad situation.”
And at the same time, he’s going to be working on building relationships. As the high school team practiced, the middle school was also practicing. It wasn’t always that way, especially when Wartnik first arrived over a two decades ago.
“Our system was really broken. We didn’t have anything going on with the younger kids,” he said. “We had a middle school program, but there was a disconnect between the middle school and high school.”
But Wartnik, along with coaches like Stecher Buss, Rylan Burum, Robert Forsythe, Chris Rupp and Scott Harvey rebuilt the team throughout the school system to ensure that a strong program exists at the district.
“We want to create that sense of fluidity,” Wartnik said. “We want a program with lots of integrity and a sense of ownership. We want the elementary to think they’re part of the high school program. We want the middle school to feel that way as well, and we want the high school to feel like they’re part of the Little Toad program. It’s all about building relationships. Whenever you see a great wrestling program, you’re going to see great relationships.”
For Wartnik, that’s the ultimate goal of the wrestling program, what he said is a key to great teams, organizations and families.
“Hopefully we’re modeling that for our kids,” he said. “Hopefully they’re walk away knowing what it takes to develop that degree of relationship bonding. My earnest goal is that the young men and women I’m coaching will become the next outstanding citizens.”
Siuslaw’s opening tournament is Friday at Harrisburg High School, beginning at noon.