Undermanned Highlands has competed in just one wrestling tournament this season, so the team has spent most of its time in the practice room.
It should come as no surprise, then, that boredom set in for this small group, which had to cancel its dual-match schedule because it had only five varsity wrestlers.
Make that six with the return of Allan Cratsenberg, who spent a short hiatus from the mat playing on the basketball team.
Highlands is proof that practice doesn't have to be all work and no play. These half-dozen juniors and their virtual one-man coaching staff — former Valley standout Logan Downes — are as serious as a top-tier program with high numbers. But they can't be intense every minute of every practice.
“To keep it interesting, we play games,” said 170-pounder Zach Mazur. “We play knee football, where you run around on your knees and try to tackle people. And there's T-shirt tag, where one person's it and everybody chases them around. It's fun.”
It's clearly been a unique season for Highlands, which competed in the Southmoreland Tournament. They were scheduled to compete in the Indiana Tournament, too, but a last-second conflict regarding an entry fee forced Highlands to pull out of the event.
They'll be at the Allegheny County Tournament this weekend at Fox Chapel. And they also plan to compete in the Burgettstown Tournament and then the Section 3-AA tournament, which could lead to spots in the WPIAL postseason.
“It's definitely a different atmosphere this year,” Mazur said. “It's actually a lot more intense to me. You have to practice a lot harder because you know if you lose and get knocked out fast, you don't have mat time.”
The team's other wrestlers are Kendrick Moore (120), Nolan Wise (138), Derrick Mazur (160) and Tommy Grates (195).
All are short on mat experience but eager to improve. The Rams hope to put together a full team next season, but until then, they'll continue to work together — a six-pack of rogue dedication.
“The guys come to the practice room really excited,” Downes said. “We vary it a little. Sometimes we'll condition first before we work out, or we'll condition in the middle or end. It's not all technique work. Some days we go for an hour, some days more.”
Downes, who gets spotty help from volunteer coaches, often grapples with his wrestlers, but that leaves one man out.
“It can be tough; we're doing the best possible job we can,” he said.
Cratsenberg received a warm welcome upon returning. He reached the PIAA tournament as a sophomore at 195 pounds. He'll start out at 220 this season.
“We're excited to get our state qualifier back,” Downes said. “He needs to get some rust off. The kid is stronger this year than he was last year.”
Cratsenberg missed competing, even with the program lacking participation.
“I was cleaning out my closet and saw my wrestling shoes,” Cratsenberg said. “I put them on and realized I wanted to come back.”
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