There was sadness in John Owen’s eyes at the admission: he wouldn’t be taking his West Valley team to this weekend’s Tri-State high school wrestling tournament at North Idaho College.
“That’s not what this team needs,” he said. “We’ll be going to the Tri-County tournament instead.”
For Owen, missing out on the Tri-State tournament is a bit like missing a daughter’s wedding. His name has been synonymous with the event since he started it during his long, Hall-of-Fame career as the NIC wrestling coach.
With a relatively inexperienced squad still learning how to win, Owen realized that the opponent his Eagles need to conquer first is, well, themselves.
The most difficult thing a coach has to teach a wrestler is how to win, Owen has said. Pitting his team against state championship-caliber wrestlers from Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana won’t help West Valley learn that valuable lesson.
But it’s a lesson his Eagles are working on, a problem they’re working out and a challenge they’re coming to grips with.
“I think we’re starting to get it,” senior Luke Konzal said. “I know I am.”
In Wednesday’s nonleague match at Lakeside, the Eagles’ 145-pound senior took a step forward.
The Eagles showed themselves tentative early. In the first four matches, Lakeside scored two pins, and a major decision to go with a forfeit at 112 pounds. West Valley spent much of its time backing up while Lakeside aggressively looked for takedowns.
Lakeside, a program that holds its own against bigger, stronger competition on a regular basis, made West Valley pay for its timidity by scoring takedowns. Still, once taken to the mat, the Eagles battled gamely and proved they were capable.
Wyatt Scott earned a first-period pin at 130 to get West Valley on the scoreboard, but Lakeside put together back-to-back pins as the Eagles kept their transmissions in reverse.
Konzal, too, opened his match by giving ground, but something changed at the 1:30 mark of the first period.
“That’s been the way it has gone for me the last few matches,” Konzal said. “I start out being afraid to shoot, afraid to use the moves I know I can use. I just realized that I can go for moves. I don’t have to be afraid to make a mistake. I can wrestle with confidence and be aggressive.”
Wrestling in a forward gear, Konzal turned his match around in the first period. Trailing 3-2 after one period, the senior scored a quick escape in the opening seconds of the second to even the match. His aggressiveness earned him a takedown and a pin with 31 seconds left in the second period.
Derek Lane followed Konzal with a second-round pin at 152 and Josh McVay turned in aggressive effort at 171, earning a 10-4 decision.
“I think we’re starting to get it,” Owen said. “It’s difficult for this team. My first two seasons I had a state-caliber wrestler in the room – I had Quinn Gannon, a two-time state champion. Last year I had two state wrestlers to be leaders in the room.
“This year, we don’t have anyone who got out of districts. We don’t have anyone who even wrestled at regionals back. It’s difficult when you don’t have those kinds of leaders.”
It’s simple logistics. If you want to lead a team to the next level, it helps to have someone who’s been there to lead the way.
“I’m certain that we’ll get it figured out,” Konzal said. “We’re learning. You have to get past the place where you are afraid to make a mistake, you have to get out of your head and find your confidence.
“Coach Owen gives us all the moves we need to win, but you have to find the confidence to use them and that’s what we’re learning to do.”
“Luke is probably our best wrestler right now,” Owen said. “We have some pretty good athletes. Our heavyweight is pretty good, but he’s struggling with an injured knee right now so we held him out against Lakeside.
“It’s just going to take us a while to learn how to get to the next level.”
Konzal said he’s ready and willing to lead.
“We just have to keep working,” he said. “We have to keep working hard and listening to what our coach has to teach us. We’re going to get there.”