Florida School for the Deaf & Blind 220-pound wrestler Imed Touahri (top) works to turn Duval Charter’s Matthew Agostino as the Dragons defeated the Panthers, 66-18, on December 11. Touahri won the match by fall in 1:24. (Photo forwarded by Duval Charter coach Brian Adkins).
By Shannon Heaton, Northeast Florida Matmen
When Brian Adkins returned to St. Augustine and Florida School for the Deaf & Blind two weeks ago, he felt the deja vu.
It was understandable. As an FSDB parent and assistant wrestling coach for the Dragons, he had built a history there. But it was more than just remembrances. It was about the relationships and the memories he had with young men who were now his opponents. And it was also there where he learned what he would need in order to become a head coach.
But, like FSDB, his new home at Duval Charter School-Baymeadows — a first-year high school varsity program in 2013-14 — would provide its own unique set of challenges and upsides.
As different as these two schools are — and, from a demographic standpoint, it’s hard to imagine a greater difference — the similarities between the schools and the programs are more than just a coach with ties to both.
Attend a meet in which the Dragons are competing, and there’s one thing that stands out in a surprising way:
Not just the parents of the Dragon wrestlers are encouraging their kids, not just the blind teammates who have full speaking ability, but assistant coach Travis Homewood will be shouting out instructions in many of the matches. That’s what happens when a blind FSDB wrestler is on the mat. When a deaf wrestler is on the mat, it’s a flurry of motion. Communication continues, and so does the noise that the wrestler cannot experience.
How hard is it to wrestle without sight? FSDB coach George Boyd isn’t entirely sure. Boyd, who is deaf and wrestled for Model School and Gallaudet University as a youth in Washington, D.C., before coming to coaching at FSDB in 2005, said through an interpreter this week that coaching blind kids poses a significant challenge for him at least.
“They can’t see it when we want them to do certain things on the mat. They can’t see where I’m positioned or how I want them to move,” Boyd said. “With deaf kids, it’s fairly easy to explain.”
The Dragons faced struggles a year ago, Boyd said, and the post-season Class 1A-4 results proved him right, as FSDB finished last out of 9 teams.
But, thus far in 2013-14, the Dragons are 6-0 in duals and finished a solid fifth out of eight teams at the Rob Bierman Invitational at Episcopal, with seven placewinners.
“We’ve seen our numbers grow, and our wrestlers really try to support one another and inspire one another,” Boyd said. “Last year, we didn’t have as many athletes, but we’ve seen a big improvement from last year to this.”
FSDB had five regional qualifiers a year ago. Three of those — Jake Tessar, AJ Rice and Marcus Maldonado — have been among the team leaders this year on the mat. Most of the Dragons who’ve found success have worked with Boyd for a few years.
“Sometimes, opponents will see us out on the mat and the first instinct is to maybe go easy on us,” Boyd said. “We teach our kids first and foremost that they have to work. That they have to be tough. They have to work hard in order to win.”
Because the experienced Dragons have worked with Boyd for as long as they have, they also worked with Adkins, who was Boyd’s top assistant and the go-to resource for the blind members of the team. That made things interesting when Duval Charter came to St. Augustine.
“It was a little bit awkward, but we’re still good friends,” Boyd said of having Adkins back but on the other side of the mat.
“We have missed him. He is a wonderful coach and it was good to see him get the opportunity to set a program up on his own. We just had to treat him like another opponent.”
And the Dragons proved equal to the task of defending their home mat against the Panthers, handling Duval Charter, 66-18.
To be sure, the wrestlers at Duval Charter all can see. They all can hear.
That being noted, however, the Panthers have no wrestling room or even a gym of their own yet, practicing in the cafeteria. Practice mat? Loaned from another school. Gear? Self-supplied.
Seniors? Nowhere to be found. Duval Charter won’t have a senior class until 2014-15. High school matches before this year? None. Last year was a probation period in which only middle-schoolers competed in meets.
“Last year, practices were kind of show-up-if-you-want sort of mentality,” Adkins said. “This is the first year where if you don’t show up for practice, you don’t compete.”
Duval Charter’s Ben Fitzpatrick (top) attempts to complete a headlock for a fall during the Panthers’ dual with Florida School for the Deaf & Blind on December 11. Fitzpatrick, competing at 145 pounds, did pin the Dragons’ Chasien Taylor in 3:39, but FSDB won the dual, 66-18. (Photo forwarded by Duval Charter coach Brian Adkins).
It’s not physical differences that the Panthers face as a challenge. For Duval Charter, it’s overcoming the structural hurdles in trying to build a program.
“The hardest part is getting the administration to buy in to what we’re hoping to accomplish,” Adkins said. “We have the support of the kids and the support of the parents. Teachers have been giving me almost daily reports on how our kids are doing in class.”
Wrestling at Duval Charter is about the fundamentals so far: the single leg takedown, the arm-chop breakdown. Basic stuff, Adkins says, much different from his own background as a prep wrestler in Michigan, where he was a two-time state finalist.
“The kids have struggled to see what it takes to get a really competitive program going,” he said. “You look at Bishop Snyder, you look at Fleming Island, you look at Camden, those teams are year-round, going hard at it everyday.
“Our kids are learning that’s what it is going to take, to get that mental toughness of being a wrestler.”
Duval Charter is painfully young. The Panthers’ dual results show that, in part, with a 2-11 start so far. There’s only one junior in the starting lineup. Five or six sophomores have seen time. The Panthers’ most successful wrestlers thus far, lightweights Andrew Slade (106), Daniel Porter (113) and Hunter Lawson (120), are in 7th, 8th and 9th grade, respectively.
Dealing with the lack of wrestling experience, the lack of any senior leadership in the lineup, as well as the improving-but-still-lacking logistical support network, has required Adkins to call upon the skills first picked up at FSDB in dealing with his new charges at Duval Charter.
“It’s emotional. Your everyday life seems boring, watching what they go through,” Adkins said of his time with the Dragons. “That’s helped me in public school. I feel like I’m more compassionate as a coach now. I feel like more of a mentor.”
And running his own program has caused him, like his wrestlers, to go through a steep learning curve. But he didn’t have to look very far to give his team some motivation.
“When we faced (FSDB), I told our kids, if they wanted to learn about what heart and motivation and being hungry for a wrestling match is all about, they needed to pay attention to what they saw all around them that night,” Adkins said.
At both programs, what you see all around you are groups of young men — and women, as Duval Charter does have two girls on the team in sisters Zualezhka and Andera Moran-Melendez — who simply want to compete, to get better and to identify as part of a team.
In short, at both FSDB and Duval Charter, wrestlers are just like every other wrestler at every other school, even though they may not have the same facilities, the same knowledge or even the same physical attributes.
“When other wrestlers see us compete and have more exposure to us, they see us more as equals,” Boyd said. “Our kids want to say to themselves, ‘I CAN do it. I can be equal with any other students.'”
In a sport that prizes the grind, that values the struggle of overcoming obstacles, sometimes it is the obstacles that are fashioned by outsiders that are larger than the obstacles that are overcome within it.
“They don’t see any limitations,” Adkins said of FSDB wrestlers, though in some ways he could have just as easily been speaking about his own team.
“It’s just us in the hearing world, in the sighted world, who look at what they do and we can’t imagine how they do it. We think we couldn’t possibly in that position.
“A lot of those kids don’t want anything about their life to be different.”