Maverick Wrestling takes down their first ever SPC Championship, becoming the only school other than St. Mark's to hoist a banner.
In an odd twist of timing, the week the International Olympic Committee announced that wrestling, in every Olympics since 1896, was going to be taken off the mats of the 2020 games, St. John’s made a historic move of their own in the sport. Since St. John’s first rolled out the mats in the makeshift wrestling space in the Arnold Student Center cafeteria in 1984, it seemed that the SJS program would stay pinned in the dungeon of the SSAC, remaining anonymous in the high school wrestling world.
Last year the Houston wrestling community got a glimpse of the Mavericks in their first-ever team championship win at the 2011 St. Thomas Invitational tournament. They finally had something to show for the training, time and talent, that has hit the mats for the past 28 years. The elusive SPC championship had started to crop up in conversation, but then, two days before conference, one of St. John’s stars, Nathan Avery ’13, was lost to injury. St. John’s, with too many gaps in their line up, finished a disappointing 4th at the end of the season.
The 2012-13 season began with the motto, “Say something,” and the Mavericks had a dialogue to match their performance on the mats. They grabbed the St. Thomas Invitational championship for the second year in a row, and they shored up most of the weight classes with a blend of underclassmen and seasoned veterans. The novelty of holding up another St. Thomas trophy wore off quickly. This St. John’s Wrestling team wanted the big trophy…the SPC championship, a feat accomplished by only one team: St. Mark’s, who has won every wrestling championship in conference history. Could these guys from St. John’s walk the talk at SPC? With a contender in every weight class and newcomer heavy-weight Daniel Jellins ’14 in the fold, the Mavericks were looking to “smack the yak.” Then Jellins, like Avery in 2012, ended his season with an injury prior to SPC. Doubt started creeping back in: did St. John’s have what it took to win?
The telltale sign was St. John’s runner-up performance behind St. Thomas at the State Prep championships two weeks prior to SPC. The Mavericks placed above SPC contenders Kinkaid and St. Mark’s, but the variables of scoring and making the championship round in a tournament are as questionable as Olympic Wrestling’s reinstatement over wakeboarding and wushu. Without Jellins’ points in the heavy-weight division, the Mavericks would have to make up the difference in other weight classes. A total team effort would be required.
“One of our strongest pullers is now riding in the wagon, and it just got heavier.” Coach Paul recalled the day after Jellins went down. “I will never forget hearing Sam Oliver ’13 say ‘Well, let’s get to pulling,’ when we lost the big guy.”
“Everyone has a job on this team,” said co-captain Nathan Avery ’13. “No matter who you are, you automatically contribute. It’s the beauty of the sport.”
“Focus in our matches and focus when we watch matches are going to help us win points at SPC,” said Jellins, doing his part to support the cause.
Midway through the competition, the Mavericks had the lead with 142 points. Kinkaid was a close second with 133.5. St. Mark’s was a distant third. Most of the team was gathered in the foyer of the St. Mark’s Winn Athletic lobby, loading up on lunch for the championship rounds.
Every competitor scores advancement points by winning a match, and extra points are awarded if you beat your opponent by a major decision of 8 points or greater. A pin is worth more. On the championship side of the bracket the points are compounded compared to the consolation side; therefore, first round wins give teams a greater chance to score more points as the brackets play out, and higher seeds have an easier route to the finals.
“In the last few years we made a break through in convincing wrestlers and their families to perform at additional meets in order to establish a seeding criteria for the final meets,” said Coach Paul. “It was a sacrifice that families made on their weekends to give us a chance to rank our wresters in the final SPC championships. If our guys have a history of big wins, then they will be seeded higher.”
Seven years ago Coach Paul arrived at St. John’s with a monumental task of changing the perception of the sport by convincing students to try wrestling for the first time, win without having won before, and stay motivated in a sport which requires hours of training and visceral athleticism to just survive, much less win.
“When I walked into the mat room for the very first time in my first year, I asked the team what were their goals, and they responded ‘to finish second place (behind St. Mark’s),’” said Paul. “The culture then was to find easy matches to win. Now we look forward to competing against the toughest opponent we can find to get the best possible seeding.”
“I tell the guys ‘if you beat the biggest, baddest guy in the room then you are that guy,’ and we will get the number one seed, said Paul. “It has been a process. I may have tried too hard early on making sure we looked the part in the latest swag, but now we have a system in place that can hopefully build on itself. The middle school program is where it all began.”
Almost all of the team began their wrestling career with Coach Paul in 7th grade. Getting set to go into the ring of the final rounds were three freshmen making their SPC debut: Reed Brace ’16 (106), Cyrus Lee’16 (113), and Yo Akiyama ’16 (120).
Brace, new to the sport, went out like a veteran and pinned the St. Mark’s opponent to finish first and get things going for St. John’s. Lee also pinned his opponent from EHS in the consolations finals to take third. Akiyama, a more defensive style wrestler, went the distance against a Kinkaid wrestler for a 5-1 win, and more importantly finished a place ahead of Kinkaid, the only team other than St. John’s with a shot to win it at that point.
Raymond Yuan ’15 (127) drew a Kinkaid opponent he had defeated twice before, but ended up being pinned. Jerald Barbe ’15 (132) pinned his FWCD opponent for third place, but Kinkaid won the division and St. Johns was ahead only by 147-138.
Co-captain Ben Stein ’13 (138) had never won a tournament in his entire career at St. John’s. Wearing a white singlet reserved for only for a finals match, Stein went the distance against a FWCD wrestler to win 7-3.
“I feel incredible,” said Stein. “I’ve never won a tournament before and this is the best I could have done. We have the other two captains coming up, so I like our chances for a team title.”
Sean Yuan ’14 (145) lost his third place match and Kinkaid won that division, while Preston Neal ’14 (152), who was upset in the first round, regrouped to pin his second opponent and medal in at third place for valuable points in the team standings. Orion Hicks ’15 (160), who beat the number one seed from Oakridge to gain a spot in the finals, finished runner-up on a pin by a St. Mark’s opponent. The Mavericks lead was cut by one: 154-St. John’s, 146-Kinkaid.
Brooks Arnold ’14, (173) and Douglas Moody ’14 (182) did not place in the next two weight classes in which Kinkaid medaled for seven more points, closing the gap 154-153 in the team standings.
“I should have won my first match but you can never expect anything,” said Arnold.
At that point the expectations of a team win were clear: Kinkaid was out of wrestlers in the remaining matches and the Mavericks were set to take their first SPC
wrestling championship, but there was unfinished business to take care of.
Co-captains Eric Hobby ’13 (195) and Avery (220) had yet to wrestle their final matches. The pair who went to wrestling camp together, and were wearing their championship whites, only had to step on the mat and the team victory was inevitable, but the only two seniors to have gone the course since seventh grade, went out in style winning their last SPC matches of their careers.
“We have been saying since 7th grade we were going to hang a banner and we got it done,” said Avery.
They had gone 27 years without hoisting hardware of any kind, while witnessing St. Mark’s School of Dallas capture more titles than Coach Alan Paul’s collection of Under Armor apparel.
“Alan has developed this program every year and it is a tribute to him and the kids who stuck with it,” said Athletic Director Vince Arduini.
“I cannot even think straight,” said Paul, sporting a striking new scarlet wrestling sweater. “I just want to celebrate with the team. Now, we are saying something.”
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Sam Chambers- Athletic News