Despite losing record, wrestlers still go full tilt

By David Lance

In the NIU wrestling room in Chick Evans Field House, 3:50 p.m., Feb. 3, T.C. Dantzler makes an announcement to everyone within earshot.

“Hey, guys, I bet I don’t get taken down today.”

Dantzler is a member of the NIU wrestling team. The 158-pound junior is 8-2 this year and has won seven matches in a row. He has gone to the NCAA Championships two consecutive years.

Right now, Dantzler and eight of his teammates (the other seven have been sent to the weight room) are warming up for practice.

All except one of the wrestlers have on light-red NIU wrestling shirts. All of them wear shorts, headgear and wrestling shoes. Right now, the place is warm—the wrestlers say it’s about 85 degrees—but it will get worse.

At 3:55 the team’s head coach, Ed Vatch, enters the room, closes the door, turns off the stereo, tells a joke and informs his group of the day’s agenda. The team is currently 2-11, so Vatch says from here on out, he will primarily work with wrestlers individually.

The wrestlers begin what Vatch calls ‘self-drills.’ This exercise includes working on take downs. If the wrestlers want, they can use a partner.

Vatch walks around and gives advice. “You’ve got to try to pull him,” Vatch tells Mel Heckman, the team’s 190-pounder. “Use those knees, James,” Vatch tells freshman James Spillman, one of the team’s 150-pounders.

To the left, Assistant Coach Phil Rembert and Spillman are performing a routine where both lock arms and let go, lock arms and let go. Looks like they’re dancing.

At 4:19 Heckman is the first guy to reach for a water bottle.

One minute later, Dantzler and his partner, redshirt junior Jim Gussman, the team’s other 150-pounder, crash into the wall and Dantzler gets the worst of it. Dantzler appears to have bumped his shoulder. After a few minutes, he rejoins Gussman.

Five minutes later, Vatch tells his team to get in groups of threes and while one guy watches the clock, the other two wrestle one-minute rounds.

By this time, all of the light-red shirts are much darker.

Wrestlers are flying everywhere.

Most of the wrestlers either talk or grunt to each other during this period. But off in the corner, the little guys—126-pound senior John Willems, 134-pound transfer Dan McNames and 142-pound freshman Eric Mathey—do what they have to do without much commotion.

Jim Kossakowski, a 167-pounder who is redshirting this season, is wrestling Courtney Pitter, a 177-pounder. Most of the wrestlers don’t stand out, but Pitter, with his pugnacious approach to practice, does.

“He eggs us on,” Kossakowski says.

Pitter’s left eyeball is filled with blood. “A broken blood vessel,” Pitter says after practice. “Got it last week in practice. No big deal.”

Kossakowski says Pitter, who’s record is 14-7, is “hard to work with. He’s so strong.”

Kossakowski, an alternate to the 1991 NCAA Championships, isn’t the easiest guy to work with either. “He’s a hard-nosed, tough nut to crack,” Vatch says.

The action between the two is intense, until Pitter accidentally hits Kossakowski across the face. “You all right, Koz?” Pitter asks. Kossakowski doesn’t answer. They continue their tussle.

“Take five,” Vatch says. All of them head out the door, presumably to escape the sweltering conditions. Upon their return, the wrestlers say this is a good day. Sometimes, they say, the temperatures reach the high 90s, low 100s.

“Let’s go,” Vatch says as he closes the door. The team resumes its one-minute round routine.

“Come on, Mel,” Vatch says a few minutes later. “Move it. When he’s got your head down, all you’ve got to do, really, is go to the other side.”

In the middle of the mat, Spillman takes Dantzler down … hard.

“Ooooh,” says the assistant coach.

The longer practice goes, the slower Dantzler moves. Dantzler was a member of NIU’s football team last fall, and he only took a few days off before joining the wrestling team. After practice, Vatch says Dantzler wasn’t any more winded than usual. Football, Vatch says, has not fatigued him.

Vatch turns the music off at 5:10. “I want the stand-up, escape, take-down drill,” Vatch says.

Vatch turns on the music. The wrestlers do what their coach instructs. In a couple of minutes, they’re all breathing heavily.

“Come on,” Vatch says. “Pick it up, pick it up, pick it up.”

Vatch tells the wrestlers it’s time to do the stance drill. Some of the wrestlers moan. This raises Dantzler’s ire.

“Let’s get it over with!” he says. “Stop bitching!”

Rembert tells the wrestlers to take their shirts off if they want. Five take his advice. They begin the drill.

“Go side to side,” Vatch says.

“Stay low, don’t stand up, T.C.,” Rembert says. “Don’t hang on to each other, guys.”

“Okay, time,” Vatch says. “That’s good, guys. Beautiful.”

Some guys groan, some walk around, some simply slump to the mat. After about 30 seconds, the wrestlers do some push ups and sit ups and wearily head for home.

“My freshman and sophomore year, I didn’t like it,” Gussman says about practicing. “Now, I love it,” says Gussman, who is 4-9-1 for the year. “It’s a brawl. We push each other good.”

“Practice is a lot tougher than meets,” Kossakowski says. “A lot tougher.”

After everyone has left for the showers and home, Gussman, still soaked with sweat, stays to do more push ups.