POCATELLO – One by one, the black singlet-wearing wrestlers rose from their chairs and strutted to the left of the referee, getting their left arms lifted in the air and letting out a wry smile as teammates sarcastically clapped. Then they sat down.
Only Pocatello’s Gabe Blessinger (120 pounds) and Ben Reed (220) along with Century’s Shad Smith (145), Canyon Mansfield (160) and Easton Millward (170) had their arms raised with a real opponent standing to their side.
Of the 14 matches in Wednesday’s dual meet between Pocatello and Century, nine were Indian forfeits. Century cruised to a rather insignificant 72-12 victory in a meet that concluded in less than a half-hour.
So where were the Poky wrestlers? Only a few miles away, it turns out. As the Indians suffered their road loss on Wednesday, seven of their wrestlers were inside a classroom at the high school. It’s the Breakfast Club of sorts for wrestlers. Those deemed ineligible because of grades go to a makeshift study hall every night in lieu of practices or matches.
“They know that’s what means to be part of a team,” Pocatello coach J.B. Plato said. “We’re all focused on either getting our grades up, getting healthy or going out there and competing.”
Most nights, Plato and his assistants will rotate checking in on the study hall group. They’ll run into the classroom, help with some math problems, maybe read an essay then jump back in the wrestling room to teach technique.
It’s an odd and frustrating dynamic for Plato. Grades are largely effort-based, and it’s his goal to show his team that they need to put just as much into the classroom as they do on the mat. Some of his seniors — namely Blessinger and Reed — have been uplifting, accountable forces in the locker room who encourage those trying to bolster their grades rather than taking jabs at them.
But on nights like Wednesday, the absences are more poignant. Plato will admit this year is different. His team hasn’t been hit by COVID yet, but the virus has given kids more free time. And for his wrestlers, that means more distractions. Plus, online classes aren’t always a welcome cure for bad grades.
Yet, he understands priorities and hopes his roster soon reaches full strength as they try to make a push into the end of the year.
“It kind of hurts us a little bit not having them on the mat, but we have to focus on the grades with them,” Plato said. “For us, our season starts now. We’re going to start building from here … We’re looking at a shortened season for our team mentally and we’re just going to go up from here.”
Century coach Mike Millward feels the same way about his program. The Diamondbacks have their own roster battles this year, too, but theirs have come from COVID-19.
After Wednesday’s dual meet, Millward stood in Century’s weight room. There was a purple mat extended across one wall, creating a makeshift wrestling room that allows the Diamondbacks to be more socially distant at practice by having two separate areas to wrestle.
It is a necessary protocol. It’s just not helping Century’s progress.
“We’re a little behind where we need to be to accomplish the things we set out to. COVID isn’t helping that,” Millward said. “When guys say they’re sick, you can’t take the chance of putting them in the room.”
The Diamondbacks have had a few wrestlers miss time because of the virus this season, including one on Wednesday. But unlike Poky, Century has immense depth. So a departure or two only means opportunities for the underclassmen, like the three freshmen who made the Diamondbacks’ lineup on Wednesday.
“JV guys can be in the lineup, get some experience at a different level and still have the varsity guys around them. That’s important,” Millward said. “The dynamics of this year are so different .. so just try to be consistent and with that consistency, I think you get to the right place.”