GARDINER — For high school wrestlers, the Tiger Invitational could be called a rust-buster. Or a warm-up opportunity. Or a litmus test.
Nokomis’s Tyler Preble, however, had his own analogy.
“It’s kind of like a wake-up call,” the 120-pound senior said. “You’ve been sleeping for a while, and now it’s time to get your clothes on and start.”
For nearly every wrestler packed into the Gardiner Area High School gym, Saturday’s tournament provided a chance to get ready for a season that’s only just begun. That can mean getting a look at the competition. Or working on one’s repertoire. Or getting back into wrestling shape, or just getting re-acclimated to the challenges of a tournament that starts in the morning and extends well beyond sunset.
“This early in the year we really have to watch out, and this is just a learning experience,” Nokomis 126-pounder Calvin Peck said. “(We’re) trying to figure out where our competition is and where we are as far as conditioning to make sure we’re ready.”
It was a learning opportunity for the coaches, too. Cony coach Shawn Totman, for instance, walked from mat to mat with a clipboard that had match sheets on it, each one filled with notes from the day’s action. Coaches could get an early sense for who needs to be quicker, who needs to get stronger, who needs to work on their stamina.
“We’re only two weeks into our competition part of the season. We’re still just trying to hope kids are advancing technically, (and) working on the things we’re working on in practice,” he said. “Obviously, we want to win, but we want to see improvement. That’s more important than anything at this time of year.”
The wrestlers got that message too. Conference championships and states are all about the final results. Saturday was about developing toward that end.
“We tell our new wrestlers that this doesn’t matter at all,” Peck said. “All this is is preparation for states and all-states. … By this time they need to get the little things and start realizing ‘Don’t lift this shoulder here’ and ‘Do this’ and ‘Pull down here.’ … We just want them to know how to wrestle the right way.”
Mt. Blue’s Tucker Nicholas, a 170-pound junior, said the Tiger Invitational could serve as a workshop of sorts.
“Definitely. Because if you’re trying new moves in practice and you’re going ‘I think I’ve got this,’ out on the mat in a match is the perfect place to try it again,’ ” he said. “If you get caught, well, you know it’s not going to work. You’ve got to try something else.”
Veterans and newcomers alike need the transitional period — particularly when it comes to being in wrestling condition. Few high school sports, if any, are more physically demanding and draining. Plenty of athletes show up for wrestling in the preseason in great shape from football and soccer, only to find out they’re nowhere near being able to go three two-minute rounds in a tournament setting.
Plenty of wrestlers, even the ones among the best in the state, faced that reality Saturday.
“My conditioning is definitely not where it needs to be,” said Preble, the defending Class A North champion at 120 pounds. “By the end of this season I can go three rounds, no problem. Right now, I get a little gassed at three rounds.”
Peck, a Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference finalist last year at 113 pounds, echoed his teammate’s self-evaluation.
“I had a 45-second match,” he said, “and afterward, I was wheezing. … By championship finals, I’ve got to be able to be full steam by states.”
Nicholas, who helped guide Mt. Blue to the Class B semifinals in football, said the gridiron can only prepare someone so much for the mat.
“If you have no wind at the end, you’re not going to win,” he said. “Wrestling’s six minutes, and you’ve got to go, go go.”
And then…stop. Energy management in wrestling is a two-pronged challenge. Difficult as it can be to keep the energy up for six minutes, it can be just as hard to manage it in the hours of off time. Wrestlers might go for a minute or two, and then sit for an hour or more before grappling again.
“We were (at Westbrook) for eight hours last week, and I wrestled for a total of six minutes,” Cony senior and 195-pounder Aaron Lettre said. “Personally, I’d rather go boom-boom-boom, because I hate waiting throughout the day.”
Different wrestlers have different strategies for the dead time. They take naps. They get a snack. They grab a drink. Many even take showers between matches. And early in the season, maintaining that competitive edge through the lulls can take some practice.
“Your adrenaline goes away, and then it comes back. Throughout the day, that’s a tough battle,” Lettre said. “People can lose a match before they’re prepared. You have to always be getting warmed up throughout the day.”
Just another thing to learn — and for Saturday at Gardiner to teach.