MONROE — The members of the Monroe High School wrestling team have taken back their power.
Throughout the entirety of the 2017-18 season, the Bearcats have, each Wednesday, offered an homage to democracy at their practice facility at the Sky Valley Education Center, three miles from the high school.
On that day each week, the 30 team members determine the starting varsity lineup for the coming week in a series of challenge matches, a particularly intense form of intrasquad competition, where the backups challenge the incumbents to a weekly test of their fitness to hold the top spot.
The winner competes with the varsity for the next seven days; the loser must wait until the following Wednesday to try again to topple the king.
Bearcats coach Mark Dalbeck mandates that the backup challenge the starter in any of the 14 weight classes where more than one wrestler is slotted.
There were nine challenge matches on Wednesday, Jan. 17.
Some weights aren’t challenged because there is only one wrestler at that weight, and if there are three wrestlers at a weight, which is the case at 160 and 182 pounds, the No. 2 and No. 3 wrestled for the right to challenge the No. 1.
Monroe’s challenge matches (some programs call them “wrestle-offs”) are a page straight out of the egalitarian playbook, where seniors compete with and regard freshmen as equals, and no assumptions are made about whether an individual is entitled to assume a starting spot based on varsity tenure or past successes.
The best wrestler starts, no matter what.
“It can’t get any more fair than this. I don’t think there’s a better way to do it,” junior Nathan Bennett said Dec. 17 after he fell just short for the second week in a row in his attempt to unseat sophomore Wilmer Chacon at 152 pounds.
As a result of this weekly competition, the younger, more inexperienced wrestlers on the Monroe roster, some of whom have only been wrestling since they got to high school, have a carrot on a stick to chase for the duration of the season.
If they, or any other reserves, attend practice daily and work to improve, they will have an earnest opportunity to win a starting spot every week.
“We started this when we got here five years ago to build a competitive culture. We pushed it as far as we could,” Dalbeck said. “It’s gotten to the point where these matches are expected, almost demanded of us. ‘Give me my shot.’
“If they came in here today and there weren’t any challenge matches, they would be really mad.”
It would be hard to blame a group of erstwhile backups for an unwillingness to give up a weekly chance to unseat the starters.
What’s more impressive about the way the Bearcats go about their Wednesday ritual is the level of the starters’ commitment to teammates gunning for their spots.
Colton Hernandez has been Monroe’s starter at 170 pounds every week this season, save for the one he missed with illness.
A three-year varsity letter-winner, Hernandez is an impressively built athlete who played running back and middle linebacker in the fall for the Bearcats’ Class 4A state semifinal football team. Interestingly, Hernandez didn’t get much run with the starters because he was blocked on each side of the ball by running back Isaiah Lewis and linebacker Ricky Baker, a pair of All-Staters.
No ill will.
“Yeah, those guys are beasts,” Hernandez said. “I’ve grown up with those guys.”
The senior approached his challenge match Dec. 17 against freshman Ben Davis, who looks every bit three years younger than Hernandez, with total respect.
“Sometimes, a kid can be more technical, even if he doesn’t look a certain way,” Hernandez said. “Whoever is able to beat the other person deserves to start. It’s definitely the most fair way to do it.”
Hernandez typically pins Davis in the first round of their challenge matches, but the freshman really scrapped this time.
Davis took a 2-0 lead on Hernandez and trailed just 7-5 before snapping a cradle on the senior incumbent, eliciting a shriek from team manager Jaylyn Mast, who was operating the scoreboard. That drew the attention of the rest of the squad, which was drilling with assistant coach Ken Pamanian with its back to the action.
For a few incredible seconds, Hernandez’s role as a starter — and his chance to wrestle on his Senior Night the following day — was in doubt.
“It did surprise me,” Hernandez said of Davis’ aggressive move. “I usually pin him in the first round. I was probably getting over-cocky and I needed to calm myself down.”
Hernandez escaped the cradle attempt and eventually pinned Davis to maintain his starter’s role for another week, but the freshman’s improvement was obvious to him.
“He’s definitely gotten a lot better, and that’s great. I love helping kids get better,” Hernandez said. “We’re a family.”
No matter how tight-knit a team may be, there’ll always be competitive friction.
Chacon’s battles with the challenging Bennett the past two weeks have been intense, purposeful encounters between two confident athletes, each of whom believes he should start at 152 pounds for the Bearcats.
On Jan. 10, Bennett opened up a 12-point lead on Chacon at the end of the first period, but the starter fought back, whittling away at the advantage until he retook the lead with 30 seconds remaining in the bout and held it.
The return bout last week was electric and frenzied, both wrestlers shooting and parrying, and shooting again. Midway through, Chacon hoisted Bennett high off the mat. Practice stopped in the other half of the room until Pamanian brought the Bearcats back on task.
Chacon opened up a 5-0 lead to in the second period, but Bennett fought back to 5-3. Chacon took Bennett down to start the third round (7-3), but Bennett escaped (7-4) and returned the favor (7-6) in the final minute of the bout.
Both wrestlers had expended a great deal of themselves — in the middle of a practice that began with a three-mile run — but they each seemed to have fuel to burn.
Chacon reversed the challenger Bennett with 14 ticks remaining on the clock, and despite ceding a last-second escape, retained his starting spot with a 9-7 victory.
Chacon briefly celebrated, then slumped a bit from fatigue.
Bennett stormed through the locker room door, shoving it open ferociously.
An hour later, the two were chatting and smiling together.
“We’re just teammates after that,” Chacon said following practice. “We’re a family.”
The family that competes together, succeeds together. Monroe outlasted Mariner 42-36 the night after the challenges, improving the Bearcats’ Wesco 4A mark to 3-2 and extending their winning streak to four matches.
“We’ve had to drive a lot of that good, competitive tension,” Dalbeck said. “In a wrestling room, you need that. You’ve got to bring the dog out in these guys every so often.”
Taylor Ivy, Monroe’s senior co-captain and starter at 145 pounds, is the team’s most experienced wrestler, and was drafted by Dalbeck to serve as the official for last Wednesday’s challenge matches.
The role suits Ivy, a serious young man who didn’t need to be told to call it by the book — down to warnings for covering violations — in these bouts, where varsity spots are on the line.
“That’s how it has to be. It would be so unfair to a kid that’s out here working his tail off if a varsity kid took it for granted,” Ivy said. “This is the only sport I’ve found where you really do get out of it what you put into it. If you win, you get to be varsity.
“There’s nothing more fair than that.”