At the end of the Section 1 practice for state qualifiers on Wednesday at John Jay, coach Bill Swertfager turned off the lights and asked all of the wrestlers in the room to lay on the mats. Of course, asking a bunch of 16-and-17-year-olds to lie quietly for any period of time is a tall order, but as Swertfager’s message continued to sink in, you could see a calm come over the group.
The John Jay coach began by asking all of the wrestlers to close their eyes and visualize themselves in Albany on the big stage. He told them to go over each move (telling them to use their “go-to stuff”) and picture success in each situation.
“No one wants to wrestle the guys in Columbia blue anymore,” said Swertfager, referring to the color of the Section 1 singlets. “Seven or eight years ago, they loved wrestling the guys in Columbia blue, but not anymore.”
The success of Section 1 at the state tournament in recent years has become a point of pride. I’ve written before about the 2000s being a bit of a down period for the section, but as Swertfager pointed out, they’ve finished in the “top fourth or third” in the state for each of the past few seasons. Section 1 has gained respect across the state – particularly in Division 1 – which is evident based on the number of wild card bids and wrestlers who are expected to place.
But Swertfager also told each wrestler to enjoy his moment.
“It’s OK to be selfish this weekend,” he said. “This is about you.”
• The practice routine at John Jay hasn’t changed much since my visit last season. They’re not teaching anything new at this point; it’s just about staying sharp and maintaining conditioning. Everything is fast-paced, with Swertfager shouting out specific moves and letting wrestlers go hard to work on each for 35-second intervals. One thing that stands out is the pairings. Wrestlers will often use practice partners who are a weight class or two bigger than they are so that guys their size will feel lighter this weekend – similar to a baseball player using a donut while he takes his cuts in the on-deck circle. “We were just sharpening up,” said Pearl River’s 120-pounder John Muldoon, who is experiencing the Section 1 practices for the first time. “It’s always good to have kids who are bigger than you riding on top. It’s hard to get out, but hopefully it will make kids up there at states feel a lot lighter.”
• After the specific wrestling drills, Swertfager had them do some running. He reminded them, “I shouldn’t have to push you at this point,” which seemed to get a few guys going. They concluded with a game of dodgeball to keep the mood light, and let me tell you, John Jay-EF’s Dale White looks like he should be on the mound this spring. The kid was throwing darts.
• The coolest thing to me about these practices is all of the top talent from the area comes together in one room. Even a non-Section 1 guy like Fordham Prep’s Sam Melikian was there getting his work in. One benefit that first-time qualifiers like Muldoon mentioned to me is having so many experienced wrestlers to learn from. As those who have been there before will tell you, it’s not like anything that first-timers have been through before. “It’s an advantage every match and every second that you wrestle up there, because it’s different than any other tournament,” Edgemont’s four-time section champ Trey Aslanian said. “You’re in a big stadium where thousands of people are watching you. People want to say that it’s just a mat and everything, but it’s really not. You really have to get used to it. My first year, I did a bad job of managing it, and every year I got a little better. I probably would consider myself an expert at this point.”
• I’ll have a preview for states posted sometime tomorrow to break down the chances for some of the wrestlers who are entering the weekend with high hopes, but I’ll leave you with one final question: Who let the controversial fart slip when coach Swertfager asked everyone to lay down on the mats in silence? It seemed to come from the part of the room where the big guys were practicing…