Perhaps more than any other sport in high school, wrestling is unknown and somewhere between its fictional entertainment counterpart and the men and women to bleed for Olympic glory.
In the city of Midlothian, before the gaining a foothold in Wrestling Texas' No. 18 state poll in Jan, the sport flew under the radar of other better-understood sports like baseball, basketball, football and volleyball.
The Panthers success is compounded not only by its 14-year history but also by its first-year head coach.
"Last year I ended up taking over the program even though I wasn't the head coach and kids fed off of it," said Kevin Reed, the head coach of Midlothian High School's wrestling team and an Oklahoma native. "Coach (Doug) Wendel approached me about it last spring and asked me if I wanted to take the reins and I took the opportunity and ran with it. Wrestling's a thing that's growing in Texas and I took the coaching philosophy of some of the Oklahoma coaches I grew up under. It's a pretty big deal up there and a lot about getting kids to fight hard for six minutes."
Many of the boys and girls who paint wrestling mats daily with sweat, tears and desire throughout the nation have done so for nearly all of their lives. Wrestling, as they describe, takes almost a lifetime to master and endless grit to coach.
"It's easy for a coach to take all the credit, but we get paid to do our job. My job is to push them and get them ready to go out there and compete," he continued. "Me pushing them is one thing, but them wanting it for themselves is entirely another. This is a hard sport if you don't want it for yourself. They wanted to be good and a lot of families invested the long hours in making that happen and to get them to that level. We may not be one of the most established programs in the state or the most talented, but we've been fighting for six minutes and taking it to some teams. We're in shape and we're tough. When we wrestle for six minutes, there are very few people that can hang with us."
Count Grapevine High School, which was ahead of formerly unranked Midlothian in Wrestling' Texas' team rankings, among the fallen. The fact Allen Roppolo beat a state-ranked individual wrestler with a devastating collegiate-level spladle pin — a cross between a leg split and a cradle — only sweetened the win.
Midlothian, for the first time in the wrestling program's history, is state-ranked and arguably one of the best sports in the school — seemingly out of place given Texas' propensity to love the game of football like an organized religion.
It's also gaining notice in the high school's hallways.
"A lot of people actually know there's a wrestling team here now and that Midlothian has wrestling. Whenever we'd do fundraising and say it was for wrestling, we get comments like, 'There's a wrestling team here?' I guess it catches them off guard when they find out," said Dustin Claus, one of the three Panther wrestlers that have been state-ranked individually this season.
Claus, who was state-ranked both last year and at the beginning of the 2017 season before an injury sidelined the red-haired grappling aficionado, joins Roppolo and Ryan Flores at the top of the Midlothian wrestling roster.
Per Wrestling Texas, an organization that provides information about high school and youth wrestlers in the state, Flores is ranked No. 10 in the 195-pound weight class and Roppolo is No. 11 at 113 pounds.
"Some people are starting to realize we're an actual team and how well we're doing," Flores added. "People really didn't know about us last year. Now people ask me about wrestling. Random kids that I've never even met are talking about our wrestling and come to see us. The sport's a little underrated and unknown but its getting way more popular than it was 10 or 20 years ago. I think, in time, wrestling will catch on in Texas and become a big thing here."
Flores and Claus competed in the UIL's 6A state wrestling competition last year.
The cast-iron grip of the University Interscholastic League, a high school sports' rules and regulations organization, governs more than 1,000 high schools. In the same vein as the Illinois High School Association (IHSA), Michigan High School Association (MHSA) or Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA), the UIL was created by the University of Texas at Austin in 1910 to provide leadership and guidance.
Unlike northern states like Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, Ohio and Pennsylvania, where wrestling has a rich and deep-rooted history, in the Lone Star State the art of grappling is in a fledgling state. Northern states also have clearer connections to powerhouse collegiate programs at Indiana Iowa, Iowa State, Michigan State, Minnesota, Northern Iowa, Penn State and Ohio State — programs that hold 44 of the 86 NCAA team championships.
Texas' neighbor, Oklahoma, owns 41 of the remaining 42 titles via Oklahoma State University (34) and the University of Oklahoma (7). None of the 21 NCAA Division I schools in Texas have ever won a collegiate wrestling title.
More importantly, only one school can boast a collegiate wrestling program.
Wayland Baptist University, whose Tamyra Mensah recently became the sixth U.S. woman to win gold at Krasnoyarsk, Russia's Ivan Yarygin Grand Prix on Jan. 27, is a part of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics — like the Waxahachie-based Southwestern Assemblies of God University.
"Wrestling in Texas has gotten better, but it's only been a UIL sport since 2001," Reed said. "It's still relatively new to the state. In [Midlothian], there are youth programs that help introduce people to the sport. Midlothian Heritage has a budding program, too. I think in 10 years Texas will be on the same line as other states like Oklahoma, Iowa and Pennsylvania. Getting more coaches that make the sport a priority will help as will getting elementary and junior high school programs started. If you look at dominant programs like Allen and Southlake, they have established youth programs at the elementary and middle school levels."
Midlothian Youth Wrestling, which is headed by Head Coach Wade Biermann and assistants Barry Hammonds, Bo Wiggington, Skip Mondragon, Joe Trevino, David Miller and Brandon Wallace, makes daily strides toward the dream of making Texas a wrestling powerhouse a reality. More than 30 youth athletes compete in novice, rookie and open division tournaments throughout the state yearly.
Claus and Roppolo are notable alumni of the organization, but there are others ready to follow in their footsteps and eager to make a mark on Midlothian history.
The youth wrestling movement will take time, Reed said, noting the most proficient and state-qualified wrestlers usually break into the sport at younger ages – about 6 years old – like hockey, another undervalued southern sport.
"I keep telling the kids, 'We haven't arrived yet.' We have a lot more to prove," Reed said. "There's an enormous amount of wrestling talent in this state. It just has to be found and nurtured. Right now, we're just trying to get Midlothian wrestling on par with baseball, football, basketball and volleyball and get our program to the point that people pay a little more attention to us. Winning district will be a start. So will getting more kids going to regional and state competitions. Starting younger is key, too. There's a huge — not impossible —learning curve when you start your wrestling career in high school."
He said that when children start at earlier ages, they have an adequate or proficient grasp on the sport's fundamentals and when they enter high school with little to none, there are challenges outside of physical conditioning that can cause obstacles.
Of Midlothian's senior-laden team, only 40 percent of Reed's wrestlers had pre-high school experience. There are a few wrestlers, though, that spent years honing their craft and making that type of sacrifices that would break most enduring the year round training.
While others came seemingly custom-fit for the sport, some entered Midlothian as 70-pound hardgainers, a commonly used term for people that have difficulty gaining weight, with nothing but heart, a dream and the drive needed to be great.
"I was like 78 pounds as a freshman and they wouldn't even let me wrestle — except for duals — at 106 because I was so light," said Roppolo, who has wrestled for eight years, grinning mischievously and clasping his hands behind his back. "It was because of the wins during the duals the coach decided to take a chance on me. That [sophomore] offseason I worked my way up to 90 pounds. It was a summer in the weight room and a lot of protein shakes. While a lot of my friends were at the beach or enjoying the summer, I was working. Now that I look back, it was worth it."
If you ask the boy who gave up football and soccer to become a wrestler about whether or not Midlothian is satisfied with the No. 18 recognition, he may scoff at your query.
"We're not done," he continued as a look of sheer determination replaced his fading smile. "We're going to work even more. We may be state-ranked, but we're nowhere near good enough yet. If you're not in the top five, you're not going to be remembered. We don't spend all these hours, do all this work and sacrifice this much for nothing."
Only days are left until he and his teammates can speak their determination into being.
The boys and girls of Midlothian wrestling will get their first opportunity to climb up the state ladder when they travel north at 9 a.m. Saturday at Grapevine High School during to compete in the district meet.
Marcus S. Marion can be reached for story idea submissions or concerns at (469) 517-1456. Follow him on Twitter at @MarcusMarionWNI.