DeWitt pins hopes on young wrestlers
Bill DeWitt crouches, his eyes focused on the two wrestlers grappling on the mat. He shouts encouragement and directions even though he knows the kid in the Tonganoxie singlet probably can't hear him.
"Once they get out on the mat it's kind of out of your hands, and it's frustrating," said DeWitt, who is in his third season as the Tonganoxie varsity wrestling coach.
DeWitt's love for wrestling comes from personal experience. He lettered four years as a wrestler at Thomas-More Prep in Hays. He qualified for state twice and placed sixth at 145 pounds when he was a senior.
But he thought that would be the end of his wrestling experience. He didn't wrestle in college, attending Fort Hays University before transferring to the University of Kansas where he is finishing his requirements to get certified as a teacher. But when the Tonganoxie job was advertised, his wife, Amy, got him back into wrestling. She didn't know much about wrestling, but she did know that Bill loved the sport.
"She actually encouraged me to apply for the job," DeWitt said. "Now they're stuck with me."
Tonganoxie could probably do much worse. In addition to coaching the high school team, DeWitt started a junior high team for seventh- and eighth-graders. Previously coaches had requested such a team but weren't willing to take on the job for no extra pay.
Chris Calovich, the senior leader of this year's team, said DeWitt's focus on the future, including coaching younger wrestlers, is noticed.
"I know that's going to help the team out," Calovich said. "He's doing that so the high school can be a better program."
It's hard to build a program. DeWitt said he had to encourage kids to go out every year in order to have a full team.
Dean Moss, who assists DeWitt with the wrestlers and has been working with Tonganoxie wrestlers for eight seasons, said lack of continuity in the past hurt the team's chances to be competitive.
Even with three seasons under his belt, though, DeWitt has more building to do. This season he has a very young team. Some of the wrestlers with the most promise are the freshmen and sophomores he has been working with for three years. And with young wrestlers, the team does at times show its inexperience.
Against Santa Fe Trail, a traditional league powerhouse, the team came out intimidated and only a couple of the kids wrestled well. But time should cure letdowns like that.
"We're two or three years away from competing with teams like Trail," DeWitt said.
Only wrestlers with oodles of experience, those kids who stick with the sport for more than two or three years, have the experience to work their way through many of the hundreds of moves and counters that can occur during a typical match.
It is frustrating and DeWitt said he feels a sense of loss when one of his wrestlers is on the mat and doesn't know what to do.
To that end, he drills the wrestlers endlessly in practice, building their repertoire of moves and combinations as the year progresses and trying to make each of the moves second nature so that the wrestlers will be able to instinctively react when on the mat competing.
DeWitt has degrees in psychology, philosophy and secondary education. After he completes his student teaching this spring in Tonganoxie, he will have completed the requirements necessary to be certified in Kansas. He'll be certified to teach social studies and psychology.
It's the latter that intrigues DeWitt's assistant. Moss said DeWitt's psychology degree and wrestling experience help him handle the kids in what can be a frustrating sport.
"He constructively criticizes everybody to build them up," Calovich said.
DeWitt understands that his wrestlers are only teen-agers. If the worst thing that ever happens to them is getting pinned once, that's a great life, he said.
He looks for success and takes pride in how his wrestlers perform.
"Seeing kids qualify for state is always a thrill."
But, the kids learn much more including discipline. And DeWitt is as concerned with how the wrestlers develop as young men.
"Would I love a state championship?" DeWitt said. "Sure. Would I love a league championship? Sure. But as long as these guys, in four years, have a positive, good experience, that's more important."