First experiences, lasting memories

Pat Wilson is coaching Omaha Concordia's wrestlers in the program's first season. "I've got ownership of this team just like they do," he said.


HIGH SCHOOL WRESTLING

Two questions.

That's all it took for Pat Wilson to really understand the situation he had gotten himself into.

The 48-year-old physical therapist did what a lot of dads do when their kids want to play a sport but don't have a coach. He stepped up.

This wasn't T-ball. Not YMCA hoops, either. Wilson had just volunteered to be the head coach of the new Omaha Concordia wrestling program.

And now he was getting to know the 11 novice wrestlers looking back at him.

"My first question was, 'How many of you have wrestled before?' " Wilson remembered.

A hand or two went up. The most extensive experience was a couple of months in eighth grade.

"Then I asked, 'How many of you have been punched in the face?' "

No hands went up.

It made Wilson wonder how his new charges would react while participating in what he calls a "combat sport." How will a kid respond when that proverbial "first punch in the nose" comes? The sport pushes you to the brink.

Wilson knew what it would take. Way back when, he was a four-time state medalist in Iowa.

He was a starter at UNO. "But there's no highlights," he cracks. More than 25 years removed from the sport, here he was, standing in front of a group that included a nationally ranked power-lifter and a junior hockey dynamo.

But not a single wrestler.

***

Taking over a program isn't an unprecedented move in Wilson's family.

Just before his freshman season at Shelby-Tennant High School in Iowa, the school was planning to eliminate the wrestling program.

Wilson's dad — then the basketball coach — stepped in. Dave Wilson became the next wrestling coach.

A year later, Pat was the school's first state qualifier.

The connection didn't dawn on Pat until after he took the Concordia job over the summer. It's definitely not lost on him now.

"It kind of hit me one day," he said. "I'm supposed to be coaching this team."

A coach had been lined up to get the Concordia program going. That fell through.

It was then decided, Wilson said, that they'd continue a co-op with Omaha Roncalli. Late in the spring, that plan was changed as well.

Without a coach, the program would never get off the ground.

Enter Wilson, a father of seven children — three biological and three adopted, and one foreign exchange student he considers his own.

Kari Wilson, Pat's wife, is also a physical therapist, working for a private practice in mostly women's health for more than 20 years.

What did a house full of kids and a spouse with her own career add up to for the new wrestling coach?

Morning practices.

*** The start was hardly smooth. Unwittingly, Wilson entered the Mustangs into a tough tournament to start the season. Bennington has finished in the top three at the state tournament five times since 2005. It invites a handful of quality, established programs to its tournament.

Wilson knew there would be bumps.

Nine Concordia wrestlers combined to go winless on the day. Only one made it to the third period.

"And he stalled his butt off," Wilson said.

At that point, the coach said, it would have been easy for frustration and doubt to set in.

It didn't. "It got their attention," he said. "They actually worked harder on Monday."

You won't find any Concordia names in the state ratings. Entering their district tournament this weekend, about half their wins have come at junior varsity tournaments.

Wilson warned the wrestlers that they couldn't make it about winning. You have to look further than that, he said. The message resonated, especially with sophomore 152-pounder Blake Hawkins.

"You understand your limits and then you just extend them throughout the entire season," Hawkins said. "You just make yourself an overall better person."

Hawkins, a basketball player growing up, had never been on a wrestling mat until his first day of practice. His friends were going to wrestle, so he figured, "Why not?" And he hasn't looked back.

"I love it," he said. "I'm very happy I did it."

Also a football and soccer player, Hawkins didn't take long to figure out he was in for something much more demanding.

"With football you have the hitting and the explosiveness of every single play. You go 100 percent for like seven seconds," he said. "In basketball, you go 100 percent more, but there's a lot of little breaks. In wrestling, you're going 100 percent every single time and there's no break. There's no time to catch your breath. You have to prepare for that idea."

Hawkins, who was voted a captain just after Christmas, didn't win his first match until the final weekend of the regular season. After going a full six minutes, he was too tired to celebrate.

It was more than worth it. "I wanted to quit several times," he said. "There were a couple of points throughout the season where I just wanted to get some sleep, eat some food, feel full for a couple of seconds. But it came back to the fact that I had a team, had teammates that were looking to me to continue through it. That's definitely the main lesson I'll take away from all of this."

***

At the other end of the wrestling spectrum from Concordia is Omaha Skutt.

The Sky Hawks have won 17 of the past 18 Class B championships. They're the gold standard in Nebraska high school wrestling.

But even a dynasty like the one at Skutt doesn't hit the ground running. There were similar struggles during the infancy of that program.

Brad Hildebrandt, who was the only head coach in Skutt history until stepping down after last season, remembered the tough times vividly.

"One of our first tournaments we took 12 guys and finished 0-24," Hildebrandt said. "We started with 15 or 16 kids the first day of practice and ended up taking three to districts.

"It was a grind. But the one thing you could always point to was how hard you were working. We always used to tell the kids that we'll beat them down to our level."

Like Wilson, Hildebrandt is an Iowan who wrestled at UNO. He can relate to the difficulties of starting a program. Hildebrandt knows how tough it is to have success in your own career and then stomach the struggles that inevitably accompany a startup program.

"Most wrestling coaches and most wrestlers with any salt realize this sport is about developing men," Hildebrandt said. "They know what wrestling can do for them. They build and grow. Wrestling just breeds that blue-collar, work-until-you-get there mentality."

Skutt won its first state title in the fifth year of the program. Eight years later it had seven individual state champs in a single season.

*** The car rides while taking kids home are perhaps Wilson's favorite part of being a coach.

Sometimes he just listens. "We've got some pretty deep thinkers," he said. They talk about doing freestyle over the summer. They want to know what's next.

"And sometimes," Wilson said, "they like to hear the old-man stories."

But most of all, they don't want to stop wrestling. And Wilson doesn't want to stop coaching. He says he plans on being back next season.

"I'm with these guys," he said. "I've got ownership of this team just like they do."

There are plenty of others with a rooting interest, too.

Wilson landed a couple of assistants with extensive wrestling experience. Donors not even connected to Concordia gave enough money for new mats and uniforms.

Barring a major upset, the season will end for the Mustangs in West Point over the weekend in the District B-2 tournament.

Wilson hopes to keep a majority of his team on the mat.

"I want them to believe in themselves," he said. "We'll all take a deep breath and then direct the boys to the best way to keep learning."

The coach with the questions on day one had a quick answer when asked how he'll look back on this season 20 years down the line.

"It's been up and downs. And blood timeouts."

Contact the writer: 402-850-0781, nickrubek@gmail.com twitter.com/nickrubek

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