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Bender: How can you not love state tourney wrestling?

"Wrestling's gravelly siren song brings them in ... They gather at the state tournament, this congress of warriors, this ritual, a thousand years of memories. Young ones swagger. Old ones limp."

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Tony Bender

How can you not love it? The blood, sweat, tears, and petulance. The first two are a given. Head butts in the arena. Spatters on the mat. The locker room stench of soiled lucky socks, the sweet wafting odor of sacrifice and accomplishment.

Tears are unscheduled like the rain, sometimes falling with the relief of winning, but inevitable when it's over. Now, amid the cheers, or at 3 a.m. when it hits you like brass knuckles. The last match has been wrestled, and graduation is nigh. From this to that. To life. They're ready, though.

And petulance? Petulance comes storming past congratulatory handshakes, a fierce 106 pounds, seething, not because he lost, but because he couldn't quite manage the pin. It's the state tournament. The team could have used the points.

The winners gather for the last portrait of the day, the motliest of crews in mismatched, torn sweatpants. Greens and reds, some kind of stain, and plaids. Hair by hurricane. And in every picture, at least one of them's got a bloody tissue dangling from a nostril. They look like back alley muggers, but they're not that. But, if you can't get them for purse-snatching, they oughta be charged with crimes against fashion.

Wrestling's gravelly siren song brings them in — some kids from broken homes and hardship. Miscreants, searchers from the wrong side of the tracks, some of them seemingly from between the rails. Others attend from less blemished circumstances but they all have something to prove.

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They gather at the state tournament, this congress of warriors, this ritual, a thousand years of memories. Young ones swagger. Old ones limp.

Senior Marshall Lindgren embraces South Border Coach Josh Hoffman after his final match, their faces burrowed in the other's chest. If there are tears, they're mopped up by fabric. Hoffman's wearing a faded, ratty old wrestling shirt. Leading by example. It's Marshall's third title, and he did it this time with one hand. He started and ended the season with a broken wrist and a big heart. He's a cowboy. Rough stock.

Elite wrestlers are rare. The rest get it done with the gravel in their gut and the spit in their eye. Everyone wrestles hurt. Sometimes the victory's in not getting pinned. A life lesson.

Hettinger Coach Randy Burwick's there. I size him up like I did when I met him. His grin's bigger than he is but I still couldn't take him unless he was duct-taped to a chair. Even then, it would still be close and I wouldn't get the pin.

And I finally get to meet Dale Beckman whose name's been spoken with reverence for as long as I remember. He's the architect of the storied New Salem wrestling program. Coach emeritus now, but he still works with the kids. When the season began, the experts, the wrestling soothsayers and sages who'd done all the calculations, proclaimed Lisbon, where they serve broken glass for school lunches, unbeatable. Understandable.

Those New Salem kids must be bad at math, though, because they stormed to the individual state championship, a first ever for the Holsteins. Wrestled their butts off.

“If it couldn't be our kids, I'm glad it was yours,” I told Dale.

If you build it, Coach, they will win.

Opinion by Tony Bender
Tony Bender writes an exclusive weekly column from North Dakota for Forum News Service.
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