Cedar Rapids Prairie coaches and wrestlers break their huddle before a dual with the words, “State champs.”
Before they even reach the event, they could replace that with a rendition of “On The Road Again.”
Hard work and dedication behind the scenes are a given in wrestling, but fans also miss the commitment and requirements it takes to compete weekly, including the frequent bus trips to conference duals. Prairie’s schedule hasn’t been favorable, travelling twice to Dubuque, once to Waterloo and last week to Cedar Falls. The most recent was for a double-dual against the Tigers and Iowa City West.
The trip starts shortly after 2:30 p.m. when Prairie Coach Blake Williams gives the nod to the bus driver named Richard.
Not much is said by coaches until assistant starts a roll call. The wrestlers respond with a customary “here,” “yep” and “present” until he sits back down. All but one is on the bus. Casey Becker, the Hawks’ starting 195-pounder, took a college visit with his dad and met the team at Cedar Falls.
The wrestlers then turn to their routine, and coaches dissect lineup possibilities. Some take the opportunity during the one-hour, eight-minute trip, according to Richard, to get some rest. Others go right to headphones, occupying their thoughts with music. Many of the Hawks chat, some more enthusiastically than others.
“Usually sleep or yap,” Prairie 160-pounder River Whitters said about the normal rituals before identifying regular topics. “It’s girls, sports, all kinds of stuff.”
For freshman Sam Uthoff, he uses the extra time to visualize his match and mentally prepare as the College Community Schools bus motors north on Interstate 380.
“I’m focusing on my first match,” said Uthoff, who won by major decision and then fall in his two matches this night. “Just wrestling and fighting the whole six minutes non-stop, knowing what you’re going to do before you get out there.”
He didn’t have many long bus trips with teams before high school. This is somewhat new to him.
“They’re fun,” Uthoff said. “It’s fun to be with the guys on my team. They’re good guys and good wrestlers. We have a good team altogether.”
It is a hurry to wait experience. The Hawks reach Cedar Falls High School before 4 p.m. Weigh-ins are at 4:30, which is the standard one hour before competition. They arrive early so they can check weight and wrestlers can work out if there are pounds to shed, because they only have one shot to make it once weigh-ins officially start.
This night, everyone is down to weight. The Hawks sit in the locker room until it is time to take the scale. They make weight and then reach for their coolers before donning singlets and making sure fingernails and facial stubble are within regulations
For the 106-pound Uthoff, he has bottles of water and fruit and peach cups. He has passed on a submarine sandwich this time with another quick weigh-in on Saturday at the Pleasant Valley Duals.
It certainly isn’t the same for everyone.
“The guys who aren’t cutting weight bring more,” Uthoff said. “The guys cutting weight usually stay around that.”
Uthoff has adjusted and adapted to the weigh-ins, figuring out exactly what he can eat and still perform well. He received advice from the experienced wrestlers.
“It took some time getting used to,” Uthoff said. “The older guys on the team helped me out.”
Prairie moved from locker room to gymnasium. The Hawks took the mat, jogging and then drilling moves to warm up.
Just about the entire team made the trip. Dylan Becker (132), Cam Rathje 9170) and 182-pounder Austin Gould accompany the team and offer support, being sidelined by injury. All three are ranked by The Predicament and would rather be wrestling with their teammates instead of just riding with them.
“I wish I was out there, but I know we have guys and depth to step up and fill my spot until I come back,” Rathje said. “I’m confident.”
He echoed the sentiments of Williams, who huddled the team in a space behind the bleachers for a pre-dual speech, following the referee’s meeting with the team. Williams urged the wrestlers to step up and produce during their opportunity.
Rathje and Becker played a role of coach as well, sitting on the bench in orange Prairie pullovers, offering advice like they would if in uniform.
“I know I can’t go out there and wrestle but I still need to be there to get everybody hyped up and ready to go,” Rathje said. “That’s the most that I can do. I’ll still be coaching from the side just like a coach as if I was wrestling.”
The Class 3A second-ranked Hawks face No. 8 Iowa City West to start. The Trojans have been a power the last decade and seemed down compared to previous seasons. Prairie, along with Linn-Mar, is a favorite to knock West off its perch at the Mississippi Valley Conference tournament. This dual went West’s way from the opening match when top-ranked Kegan Wakefield caught No. 3 Trey Blaha with a first-period fall at 138.
The Hawks dejection grows as West racks up pins and wins in seven of the first eight matches, building a 30-6 lead before dropping Prairie 39-23.
There was no time to sulk. Prairie turned around immediately to face Cedar Falls, who started the night unbeaten in the MVC Valley Division just like Prairie. They rebound with a 58-12 victory, improving to 19-3 overall and 7-1 in the MVC after Saturday’s competition.
After competition, the wrestlers vanish to the locker room. Cells of family members wait anxiously for the Hawks to emerge. They mingle for a short time and a wrestler alerts others it is time to leave. The wrestlers head into the cold, dark night, shuffling all the way across the Cedar Falls parking lot to the idling bus.
The trip back will be different and less crowded. Many of the wrestlers ride home with their parents, who made the trek to watch and support them. Some stop and get dinner, which is a luxury the wrestlers on the bus don’t receive.
Instead, coaches and wrestlers chew on the loss to a nemesis, making for a long ride home.
“It is,” Williams said in the parking lot waiting to board the bus. “We have to get better as a team … we have some guys thinking of themselves. If we want to get to where we want to get you’ve got to put team first. There will be individual time later on.”
The bus pulled out with the blue glow of smart phones and lap tops filling the hull. Fewer conversations exist. Homework still looms for some and other reflect on the results and the missed opportunity to remain unbeaten in the MVC.
“It makes it a lot tougher,” Whitters said about the loss affecting the ride home. “A loss like that where we should have won pretty easily makes you think about what you’re doing in the wrestling room and if you’re doing all you can do to better yourself every day.”
Williams stared at the dark road from the front seat of the bus. He started his day before 7 a.m., spending about 30 minutes with his soon-to-be 7-year-old daughter and son, 5. They will be fast asleep by the time he returns home. A day they won’t get back, but it is expected in an occupation that normally starts and ends under darkness of Iowa winters.
“All coaches go through it,” said Williams, whose wife, Emy Williams, is the head cross country coach at Solon, where Williams coached before taking over at Prairie in 2003. “It’s not just me or us, but it comes with the territory and the job.”
The Williams family has adjusted. Mom spearheads parenting duties during the winter, while dad does it in the fall. They are reunited, so to speak, during the spring and summer.
“There will be plenty of time to catch up and see things,” Williams said. “I’m pretty fortunate. I have a good support system at home. They come to a lot of meets if they’re not too far away.”
Is the sacrifice worth it? Would you prefer to be home with the family? Those questions can creep into a coach’s mind, especially when the team doesn’t perform to its potential.
“You have thoughts like that,” Williams said. “It’s just like we told our kids, you can’t feel sorry for yourself. It’s the same with us (coaches). Sure, you’d love to be able to be with your kids every night, but in reality that just isn’t the case.”
Athletics teams can serve as a surrogate family for some. The grind, intensity, sacrifice and emotion makes it more of a necessity than almost any other sport. These road trips foster camaraderie, because often teammates are the only ones who can relate to what they are experiencing.
“It gives us time to get that team bonding in,” Whitters said. “We have fun with each other.”
At least until the bus pulls back in to the Prairie parking lot, dumping wrestlers and coaches off at about 10 p.m. They clock in for an eight-hour day, which does not include their school requirements. Coaches put equipment away and wrestlers eventually pull out for their real home.
Homework still waits for some, while practice and school resumes for all after sleep. Less than 36 hours later they will be on the road again for a bus ride to another wrestling tournament.
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