Lightning grapplers complete the circle
Lake Country Lutheran wrestling building tradition, hosting for first time
Before you even discuss the intensity of competition, the uniqueness of the individual spotlight, the propensity for injury or the complexity of the competition, first-time wrestlers have plenty of other things to overcome.
"The biggest hurdle is I'll hear, 'I can't do the uniform,' " Lake Country Lutheran wrestling coach Chris Irish said, referring to the wrestling singlet. "But when it comes down to it, kids can be afraid to fail. You can hide on the bench or the sideline or in the huddle in team sports. But in wrestling, it's all you; either you accomplished it or you lost it. People can see if you're outmatched."
For a program just getting of the ground, with virtually no experience and, at times, insufficient equipment, there are going to be moments when the Lightning are outmatched. It makes Irish's job difficult, to sell potential wrestlers on a sport they've never tried with rigors they've never faced. And yet, in its first year of full-fledged WIAA eligibility, the LCL wrestling program has found its batch of pioneers.
Sticking with it
Ben Young tried basketball first when he arrived at LCL but figured wrestling sounded like fun. It was a club program two years ago when Young, then a sophomore, gave it a shot.
"It looked like a great workout, which I loved," Young said. "It can be frustrating, but I understand if I lose, the other guy has had more experience than me, which makes them better than me. I rationalize it."
Young, who was honored at Senior Night on Jan. 23 when the Lightning hosted their third and final home meet of the season, is uncommon in his initial enthusiasm. Irish said many who begin in basketball - especially at a small school where numbers allow for all comers to participate - stay in the sport long enough past the point where they'd be interested in trying a new sport.
"It's such a unique animal of a sport," Irish said. "It's the hardest sport because of what it asks of a student. My biggest job is creating buy-in interest and making it what we do. It's uncharted waters for a lot of the kids. I find myself trying to convince young men that this is the best offseason football program you're going to have."
Irish admits his practices may have been too intense early, contributing to an atrophy in early participation numbers. He had 14 kids who began the season last year when it was still non-WIAA sanctioned at Lake Country Lutheran, a number that fell to eight by midseason. Five were slated to return. One moved away, and two of the remaining four - Young and sophomore James Kirk - elected to try wrestling again.
However, LCL partnered with Heritage Christian in a co-op this season, which brings two more wrestlers into the fold and also gives the program something it didn't have last year - a competition mat. For the first time, the Lightning could host matches this season.
"It's great to have that actual experience setting up the mats beforehand and calling it our home," Young said. "We have our own actual meets, instead of driving to Kenosha for everything. It's really nice to have it here."
Learn as you go
Lake Country Lutheran's current building opened in 2009, but the wrestling program is even newer, and the complex wasn't built with wrestling in mind. The grapplers started with no equipment.
"We were learning moves in a tiled hallway," Irish said. "You could only imagine how that could be, with no mats. We were able to secure some hand-me-down mats, so we got a space to actually wrestle. We'd do a lot of lifting and running."
This year, the "wrestling room" is a converted visitor's locker room, which was previously used as an art room.
"We have the equivalent of seven 10-foot circles to work with and padded walls," Irish said. "We get creative in how we practice."
Young, who wrestles at 195 pounds, has evolved quite nicely and holds a winning record heading into Saturday's regional at Dodgeland.
"This is one of the first sports where I get nervous for every match," he said. "Your winning is on your own back. It doesn't necessarily come easily to people. People are losing and seeing others winning, and they have to stick with it and keep improving. My goal is to keep encouraging and keep them coming to every practice."
Fledgling sports programs aren't new to LCL, a school with a rapidly evolving athletics portrait. The girls soccer team won a state title last year but had to borrow players from the softball team - another new program - to flesh out its roster for the postseason. Meanwhile, the football and basketball programs continue to rise in stature.
"I have a whole bunch of people to learn from; we have great coaches over here," Irish said. "It's my first time at the helm of a program, I've definitely learned a lot along the way."
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