by John Unrein
The silhouettes of seven figures left shadows on wrestling mats as they approached the sun filled wrestling building at Grain Valley High School. The garage door to the structure was the entry used to return upon completing a game of ultimate frisbee to begin practice. Preparation was underway by the Eagles for the Class 3 District 7 state wrestling championship.
Grain Valley Eagles head wrestling coach Jeff Bowman was joined by Gavin Parks (106 pounds), Dru Azcona (126 pounds), Tanner Barker (138 pounds), Sevi Aumua (151 pounds), Hunter Newsom (195 pounds), and Donovan McBride (285 pounds) for fundamentals and mat work as March 12th looms closer for the championship tournament to be held at the Independence Events Center. A sense of ease and excitement is present within the group. The Eagles have worked hard to get to this point.
Aumua, Parks, and McBride will enjoy first round byes in the state tournament due to their qualifying first place finishes. Azcona, Barker, and Newsom will compete in the opening rounds of competition. Each has their own reason as to why they love wrestling.
“I love the challenge that wrestling presents. Some days you love it and some days you hate it, but at the end of the day it is a relationship you don’t want to leave,” McBride said.
Barker echoed McBride’s comments with, “This sport is hard, you have to push through it, and that makes it fun.”
Newsom added, “You learn the life lessons of being physically and mentally tough in this sport. Day to day, you have to work hard in practice with intensity for an hour and a half at a time to become successful.”
Parks contributed, “This is intense and different from any other sport. Wrestling is physically and mentally grueling. You have to learn how to push through it.”
Azcona continued, “Gavin (Parks) is absolutely right. What he said. Wrestlers tend to grow up to be disciplined men and women.”
Aumua finished, “You have to be dedicated to this sport. Wrestling against opponents is great, but this team gives me a second family to help me achieve my goals.
A reminder is vocalized by the group at the start of practice that little things add up to big things. Training begins with the progression of working from ground up on the mats for the Eagles. Capturing legs, driving feet to finish shots, working on doubles, and competing in mat work from both top and bottom positions are all part of the preparation. Fine tuning consistency and execution is the reward given for high school wrestlers whose season continues in March.
The lights and the size of the Independence Events Center does not weigh on the minds of Eagle wrestlers. Each claim to be aware that the task at hand is in front of them and not around them. A sentiment put into perspective by Newsom.
“You learn to focus on things that you can do and what you have control over. For us, that is on the mat. Everyone will have nerves as it is a big tournament, but as Coach Bowman reminds us, ‘nerves mean you care.’ The more you keep your head down and focus, the faster you get off the mat and that is the goal.”
Bowman’s wisdom is apparent in what is echoed by his team. Each stage of practice tends to bring a saying coined by the man at the helm of the Grain Valley Wrestling program. Some of the phrases come out with a serious tone, while others are done with a smile. The balance between what to take seriously and remembering that wrestling is a fun part of the total student athlete experience leads to Eagle wrestlers defining their head coach with one word or phrase. A situation that Bowman ignored at first before breaking into a wry smile.
“Mario. If you have ever played Super Mario Brothers, you understand why. The likeness is there. Past that he is a good guy,” McBride said.
Aumua contributed, “Caring. He wants us to be motivated and notices when we are nervous. He matches high expectations with wanting to make sure we are okay. You know when someone cares, and he shows it.”
Azcona added, “Family. This team is a big family, and he pushes that.”
Newsom continued, “Balance. Coach knows how to set high expectations and drive us to that without forgetting about fun along the way.”
Barker concluded by raising his hand and snickering prior to unloading, “Ham. He is on us like ham in a bun. It is constant, but I appreciate it.”
Barker’s final remark drew a raucous laugh from the group. The Grain Valley Eagles wrestling program is diligently preparing to “take down” the competition in front of them without the absence of fun.
From left to right: Tanner Barker, Gavin Parks, Dru Azcona, Sevi Aumua, Coach Bowman, Donovan McBride, and Hunter Newsom