Deshon Lenear, left, the lone returning Hylanders wrestler, worked out with Khalid Jama during a recent practice at Columbia Heights High School.
Nine pairs of Columbia Heights wrestlers squared off on the practice mat for several minutes of full-speed battle in preparation for a recent midseason match.
Wrestlers throughout the Hylanders' room twisted, turned and bounced around with more tenacity than technique.
Co-head coaches Dan Wrobleski and Josh LeVoir shouted tips and encouragement over piped-in music. Over the years, Wrobleski has coached more talented wrestlers from larger squads at programs such as Totino-Grace, Robbinsdale Armstrong and Maple Grove to state tournaments.
But this Hylanders group has provided what Wrobleski called the "most rewarding" experience in his 15 years of coaching.
And most unlikely.
Two weeks before the season, Wrobleski inherited a program with one returning wrestler. A voracious recruiting campaign netted enough bodies for a team but only two additional wrestlers with experience. The team is a microcosm of the diverse, first-ring suburban school, a melting pot of nationalities, races and faiths, many facing financial hardships.
The Hylanders beat similarly struggling Minneapolis Edison for their lone team victory so far this season. And some wrestlers have earned a handful of individual victories. But it's not about how many times a wrestler can raise his hand in victory, it's how many times he reaches out to support a teammate.
"Some of these kids don't get a hug at home," Wrobleski said. "But we've created a family where kids care about each other. They developed into a family."
Not all about winning
Sophomore Deshon Lenear, the lone returning Hylanders wrestler, paid his new teammates the ultimate compliment when he noted "they have gotten a lot harder to wrestle" in practice.
Lenear, who wrestles at 120 pounds, works with guys on how to use their hands and ways to escape holds. Often on the defensive, the Hylanders measure success with small milestones like surviving the first period or avoiding pins.
When Jarrod Picken (152 pounds) and Jose Aguilar (160) recorded pins in consecutive matches against St. Paul Johnson, they were welcomed back from the mat by a reception of four or five appreciative teammates.
When wrestlers stumble, Wrobleski offers support. He punctuates his typical uplifting messages by looking into a wrestler's face for an extra moment and offering a smile.
"I don't think it's as much about winning," Aguilar said. "I think it's about giving 100 percent out there."
During a match against St. Paul Harding, Wrobleski said to LeVoir about a wrestler, "You like that he wins. I like that he shows up every day."
Wrobleski credits his 18 kids for seeing their commitments through myriad challenges. One has lived in the United States for only seven months. One missed a recent practice to get a Green Card. To overcome language barriers, teammates interpret as Wrobleski hollers instructions. Because some wrestlers need 90 minutes to get to and from school via public transit, teammates have offered their homes for sleepovers.
"When we go into the wrestling room, it doesn't really matter if you're Muslim, Christian, whatever," senior Greg White said. "We're there for the same reason and that's to get better and win."
Teammates came to Brady Netland's aid in a dramatic showing of solidarity during a recent practice. Netland, a heavyweight, struggled to complete the pushup portion of the team's conditioning drills.
Teammates ran from the other side of the wrestling room to lineup beside Netland, first two then five then nearly the entire group. They all did pushups, yelling the encouragement Netland needed to finish.
Wrobleski hopes this season is the start of something for a team dominated by freshmen. He's counting on their hard work, commitment and support of one another to last for many seasons to come.
"This is a piece of sports people don't always get to see," Wrobleski said. "These kids have learned to take care of one another and I think we'll be successful in a matter of time."