Wrestling matters, even in Nevada

There is this implicit truth about high school sports across the nation: Football is Texas. Basketball is Indiana. Wrestling is Iowa.

A school in Florida might take issue with the latter, given until recently it hadn’t lost a dual meet in nearly 35 years. Back when a new home cost $35,000. When a guy named Jim Croce ruled the music charts and “M*A*S*H” the TV ratings. When the pet of choice was a rock.

Brandon High School has an enrollment of about 2,000 and sits just east of Tampa. The school colors are maroon and white. The mascot is an eagle. The wrestling team is stuff of legend.

The winning streak reached 459 — the longest in prep history for any sport — before Miami South Dade prevailed 32-28 on Saturday. Russ Cozart is the Brandon coach. Before last weekend, he was a fairly impressive 384-0.

“I finally messed up,” Cozart told local reporters afterward. “Hopefully they won’t fire me.”

It had been five years since anyone came within 20 points of Brandon. It had been forever since anyone came close to beating the Eagles, or at least since Richard Nixon was president.

“It’s beyond significant,” Cimarron-Memorial coach Mike Garcia said. “It’s incredible. It’s phenomenal.”

It is proof that a sport so defined by its dedication and clarity is not just born and raised and taught in small Midwest towns. It is evidence that the unvarying obsession and private push for superiority on a mat is not solely beholden to athletes in one part of the country. It gives someone such as Garcia continued hope such status can one day find itself here. Or at least a mere sampling of it.

Wrestling is like most sports in some ways and like none in others. There is a fixation and discipline about training and making weight that can be as dark and lonely as it is unconventional. No high school athlete prepares harder than a wrestler. You would be shocked at the workouts and amazed at the sacrifice. You see them for those few minutes of action. It’s indescribable what it takes to get them there.

But what allowed Brandon to reach such a point of dominance is the same reason powers are built in basketball and volleyball and soccer. Youth development. Clubs. An expectation that if you eventually want to compete for the mighty local prep program, you need to start training long before strolling into middle school.

“Wrestling is growing in numbers across our state simply because of the increase in population, but it’s still tough to grow the passion for it at young ages,” Garcia said. “There are some very good youth programs in Nevada, but we still have to go out and solicit the interest. We still have to go find the ones who want to wrestle. We have to let people know we’re here. Coaches still have to pass out fliers at youth football games.”

It’s not like that everywhere. More than perhaps any other sport, wrestling connects a community. It shapes an identity. Fathers and sons who competed for Brandon then and now wept when the streak ended, as did younger brothers who had dreamed of carrying it on and now vow to begin another.

Garcia and fellow Cimarron coach Tim Jeffries recently attended a match between Iowa and Oklahoma State in Iowa City, part of a gathering that reached 14,332, the seventh largest for a dual meet in NCAA history.

It’s a sign the sport remains paramount to many in a time when gender equity requirements and budget peril nationally have sliced the number of collegiate wrestling programs nearly in half. But that level of excitement always will exist in Iowa. It always will be more religion than recreation out where they grow wrestling champions like they do corn. It’s not like that everywhere.

“Sure, it hurts that (UNLV and UNR) don’t offer wrestling,” said Garcia, whose annually powerful team is 20-1 this year and had a streak of four straight state titles end last season. “It’s a huge (deterrent) in terms of being able to sell the sport locally and build that interest.

“But there are probably around 20 kids from Nevada wrestling at elite college programs right now, and we have kids in our program who routinely beat ones who have placed or won state championships in California, which never happened 20 years ago. In a lot of ways, wrestling is taking off.”

A historic winning streak ended Saturday in a state you might not have predicted. It says something for the sport of high school wrestling. It matters at a lot of places. Even here.

Ed Graney’s column is published Sunday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday. He can be reached at 383-4618 or egraney@reviewjournal.com.

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