Palo Verde coach Scott Nemchek remembers wrestler Josh Pine sitting in the stands at Centennial High last season, watching volunteers roll up the mats after the Sunset Regional Tournament. Nemchek said Pine looked straight ahead with a menacing glare, prompting him to sit next to his beleaguered grappler and ask him his thoughts at that moment.
“He said ‘I’m thinking I’ll be here next year. I’m going to be down there, in the finals. That’s my goal and I’m not stopping until I get there,’” Nemchek said. “I could tell right there that we’d have him back this year.”
About two months earlier, just three matches into Pine’s sophomore season, he was pitted against Liberty’s Storm Roper and made a critical mistake while attempting to throw him in a head and arm. Roper caught him, and Pine didn’t let go. The result was a vertebral compression fracture in his neck, and it brought an abrupt halt to his season.
“At the time, I was thinking I looked like a wuss and wondered what my teammates must be thinking about me,” Pine said. “But the next morning after an MRI, they called my dad and told him to tell me not to go anywhere and not to move cause I could be paralyzed for life. I was told if it didn’t heal properly, I wouldn’t be able to wrestle ever again.”
According to local chiropractor Steve Shaw, though there can be rare cases where someone will suffer a severe enough compression fracture they run the risk of paralysis or spinal cord injury, compression fractures typically aren’t considered unstable. They are typically treated conservatively and the patient is asked to wear a brace until the fracture heals to avoid unnecessary irritation. Shaw also said there can be severe pain associated with compression fractures. He said there can be pain from normal day-to-day activity, such as sleeping, sitting or bending.
“For a wrestler to continue wrestling with an acute compression fracture at C3 tells me he was most likely in a great deal of pain on a daily basis for at least four to six weeks,” Shaw said. “This was a tough kid.”
Pine was in a neck brace for 11 weeks.
“It scared me because I wanted to be back out there, I wanted to finish up my high school career and possibly go on to college, so it startled me,” said Pine, who placed third at regionals and fourth at state as a freshman. “It’s the sport I’ve been around for most my life. It’s been in our family a long time.”
Pine has been coached by his father, Kevin, since he was 6 years old, and holds Palo Verde’s record for the most pins in a season (31). So following doctor’s orders, he took his time getting back on the mat, assuring himself proper recovery, while avoiding surgery.
“He just continued to build during the offseason, and strengthen himself from his mid-torso up,” Nemchek said. “He absolutely got tougher in the room every week until practice partners were harder to come by. That’s when I knew he was ready to wrestle for real.”
Fast forward to Friday, as Pine is fully recovered and came into the Las Vegas Holiday Classic at the Las Vegas Convention Center with an 11-2 record and 10 pins.
Both Roper and Pine went undefeated during the opening day of the event, and if both win their first matches on Saturday, will meet in a semifinal showdown of the 153-pound bracket.
“Looking back, I think I did a good job of staying on the right path behind a lot of patience,” Pine said. “Watching the guys roll up those mats last year at regionals, I knew I should have been there, but things happen. It made me respect the sport that much more. It made me want to come back even stronger. I love the sport, a lot of guys just do it because they’ve been doing it for so long and it’s all they know. I actually love this sport.
“I’m excited for this tournament; my goal is to win this thing. And this year and next year my goal is to win state. That’s how I want to come back from this.”
TALENT-RICH TOURNEY — Tournament director Larry Barnson has seen his share of top-notch wrestling in Southern Nevada, since the inception of the Chaparral Invitational in 1973, which is now the Holiday Classic.
“I think Nevada wrestling, especially down in Las Vegas, has always tried to compare and we have some really, really good quality wrestlers in this city,” said Barnson, who coached at Chaparral for 21 years. “We don’t have that many deep, real good wrestlers in each weight class. But those that are top, I would match them up against anyone in the country.”
The Holiday Classic is up from 66 teams in 2013, to this year’s field of 73 teams and includes top programs such as Tulsa Union (Okla.), Holy Cross (La.) and Victor Valley (Calif.).
After the first day of competition, Victor Valley leads with 129 points. Liberty (Ariz.) is second with 112½. Holy Cross (110½) is third, and Tulsa Union (106½) fourth. The top Southern Nevada team is Cimarron-Memorial, which is in 11th place with 84 points.
“I think we have some real good teams from across the country, not just in the West,” Barnson said. “But more than that, we’ve kept the philosophy the same for this tournament, and that is to not really worry about getting just the top-ranked wrestlers in the country, but more a variety of different types of level and styles.”
TRAVELING FROM AFAR — Part of the 73-team field are two schools from the extreme East coast: Gonzaga College High School, out of Washington D.C., and Yonkers Public Schools from Yonkers, N.Y.
Both schools’ coaches said they wanted their wrestlers to experience the fast and athletic styles you generally see out of states like California, Nevada and Arizona.
“We brought some of our top guys out and we’re looking for the top competition out here,” Gonzaga coach Milton Yates. “There is another big tournament back east, but we wanted to make sure we got some different competition, see some wrestling styles we won’t see for another year or so.”