WRESTLING MOMS: State tourney a high-stress time for special breed
Amanda Willuweit knelt down on the bleachers in complete silence, shaking with nerves.
An instant later, her emotions broke, and she stood up and began screaming across the gymnasium.
Her eighth-grade son, Atlas, a 106-pounder on Burke/Gregory’s wrestling team, was in a regional semifi nal match that guaranteed the winner a spot in the state tournament.
“I would prefer not to even be in the room,” she said, “and especially in those kind of matches, a match that could go either way.”
Willuweit is a wrestling mom, a special breed that’s out in force at this weekend’s Class A state tournament in Rapid City and Class B tournament in Aberdeen.
From her animated actions during the match last weekend, that was obvious. Anyone in the gym would have bet her son was on the mat and in a tight battle.
With the score tied at 7 late in the third and fi nal period, Atlas gave up a late takedown and lost. Amanda fell silent.
Heartbroken for her son, she walked up to him after the match and tried to congratulate him on the effort. With tears swelling in his eyes in disappointment from the loss, Atlas tried to avoid his mom.
She was trying to show compassion, but he was pushing her away. Eventually, he gave in, and let his mom wrap her arms around him.
“I really didn’t want anything to do with anyone at the time, but I’m happy she came by,” Atlas said a couple of days after the region tournament. “If your mom comes up to you after a match, even a tough loss, and she says, ‘Good try’ and congratulates you, that’s great. It cheers you up that someone is there for you.”
After losing the close bout in the regional semifi nals last weekend in Miller, Atlas went on to place third. That earned him a berth in the state tournament, giving his mom the opportunity to watch more nail-biting fi nishes.
Amanda Willuweit, of Gregory, agreed that wrestling moms are undoubtedly a unique brand of parent — women who are passionate about the male-dominated sport and willingly play multiple supporting roles during the tough grind of the season.
They are nutritionists who prepare a healthy meal the night before a match and a delicious breakfast after morning weigh-ins.
They sit on high school gymnasium bleachers during weekend tournaments for hours, from the time their sons begin wrestling around age 5 to their senior year in high school.
Many times, when their son hits the mat, they become the most enthusiastic cheerleaders in the gym. Sometimes, even embarrassingly so.
And when a diffi cult loss is endured, a wrestling mom becomes the consoler, even if her son wants nothing to do with her.
“I think you have to be a really strong-willed woman,” Amanda Willuweit said, proudly wearing a black shirt etched with sparkling letters that reads “Wrestling Mom.” “I think you have to be able to take a beating like that. He didn’t want anything to do with me. In reality, he does, but there are times he doesn’t want anything to do with me at home during the week. But in reality, he really needs me. And it hurts your feelings, but you just move on. It’s the way it is and there are a lot of emotions involved.”
Jody Koce r has three sons who have won a total of nine state wrestling championships.
This weekend will be the final time the Wagner woman has a son in a state high school tournament. Her youngest son, David, is a senior seeking his second straight state title in Class B.
“I see myself next year, even when all my boys are graduated, I’ll still help out,” she said. “With wrestling, it’s like a family.”
Kocer was at the same regional tournament last weekend as the Willuweits. But that tournament was nothing overly exciting for Kocer. She calmly videotaped David’s semifi nal match, and after he earned a pin, she went back to cheering on the rest of the Wagner team.
Kocer has been around wrestling her entire life. She is a 1985 Wagner graduate, where she was a cheerleader and her father was the varsity wrestling coach.
Today, aside from her wrestling mom duties, she’s also the wrestling cheer coach.
“I’m the biggest cheerleader, as I’ve been told,” Kocer said. “I yell loud and I’ve even embarrassed them at times.”
Her three sons each started wrestling at 4 years old. Ryan, the oldest, has three Class B individual state titles, Alex has fi ve and David has one.
While watching David finish his high school career this season, Kocer and her husband, Don, and her parents have been traveling long miles to watch Alex start in his first year of competition with South Dakota State University’s wrestling team.
Earlier this month, David was wrestling his fi nal home matches in Wagner. At the same time, Alex and SDSU were hosting a dual in Brookings.
“Anytime there’s a conflict, we go to David’s matches because it’s his senior year,” Kocer said. “After David’s match, there were about 20 of us watching Alex’s match on the computer in the bleachers.”
The next morning, the Kocers woke up early and traveled to Greeley, Colo., to attend SDSU’s Sunday dual against Northern Colorado.
When asked how many hours and miles she’s accumulated to watch her sons wrestle, Kocer laughed and said she had no idea.
“She wants to be at every meet if she can be there, and I think she loves wrestling more than I do,” said Alex, one of five wrestlers in state history to win fi ve high school state championships. “She has to be the queen of wrestling, because I don’t know too many other moms that have been in it for about 20 straight years like she has.”
Lisa Havlik, a nurse and longtime wrest ling mom in Mitchell, has a predicament similar to the Kocers.
Her son, Brent, is a freshman wrestler for the University of Wyoming, while her youngest, Briggs, is wrestling varsity for Mitchell.
Brent Havlik, a three-time Class A state champion, said his mom always watched out for him while he was “cutting weight” — the term wrestlers use to describe the process of dropping to a lower weight class.
“With being a nurse, she knew what kind of food, healthy food that would give me energy,” Brent Havlik said. “She was pretty good when it came to meals.”
Havlik said he cut 15 to 20 pounds at the beginning of his sophomore and junior wrestling seasons.
Watching her children cut weight is nothing Lisa Havlik likes, but she knows it’s part of the sport. She’s had four boys involved in Mitchell High School wrestling and believes weight cutting has become less frequent in the sport over time.
This weekend, Lisa is attending the Class A state high school tournament in Rapid City.
“To see them come home and not be able to refuel and rehydrate their bodies, that’s one of the harder things about the sport,” she said. “I think all moms try to encourage their kids, that if you’re going to cut weight to do it by not skipping meals and making good choices. They can eat all week if they’re eating lean meats and good food.”
Still, she thinks weight cutting can be a lesson in self discipline. Her son agreed.
“This is my first year off campus, so I have to do all the cooking for myself now,” said Brent, reminiscing about his mom’s stir-fry dish. “I’m pretty thankful for it now. She wore off on me.”
Lyman wrestling coach Chad Johnson’s mom, Gloria, continues to v olunteer annually at the team’s home tournament, the Mid-Dakota Monster. He called her a “matriarch” of the two-day event, which had its 40th anniversary this year.
“When you’re a mom for wresting, you’re not just a mom for one, you’re for the whole team,” Chad Johnson said.
“We’ve had so many good ones over the years and we always knew kids were taken care of.”
Gloria Johnson has three sons who wrestled, but even though they’re all grown, she still loves to volunteer and be “a part of the wrestling family.”
Her jobs at the Mid-Dakota Monster include stocking the coaches room with food and running the concessions stands.
“Usually when I do the coaches room, I start gathering the donations, which takes a whole day,” she said. “Then there’s a full day of cooking. Everyone comes back to help.”
Ian Muirhead, a Lyman High School graduate now wrestling for Northern State University in Aberdeen, said the time wrestling moms volunteer “is rivaled by no other sport.”
“They give us everything they can,” he said, crediting his own mom, Julie.
Amy Noonan, of Howard, witnessed her son, Dan, fi nish runner-up at the Class B state tour nament three times.
When he took second place as a senior in 2010, falling in overtime, it assured he would never reach his goal of becoming a state champion.
“Those are probably the hardest times,” she said. “It’s always easy when they’re winning, but it’s the situations where something didn’t go quite right when the feeling becomes, ‘Who’s on my side now?’ ”
Amy Noonan explained how watching her son put all the effort and work into the sport for years made the situation difficult for both of them.
“It’s a sport where there’s a lot of gut and heart that comes out on the mat,” she said, “and to be put in situations where everyone is watching, sometimes the pressure of all that, the emotions, they can get to be a lot.”
This weekend, 448 wrestlers are qualified for the two state tournaments. With 14 weight classes each, the two classes will crown a total of 28 individual champions.
That means 420 wrestlers will suffer at least one defeat, and it also means a lot of wrestling moms will need to be there after those losses.
Four years after losing that last state championship match, Noonan — who is now a wrestling referee — can still vividly describe the disappointment he felt.
He also remembers it was his mom who picked him up.
“After I lost, I went and found myself a quiet place, and lo and behold, my mom found me,” he said. “At a time like that, I just wanted to be by myself. There are a lot of things running through your head, but it was nice to share it with someone, someone you love, care about and trust. Someone that’s been through it all with you.”
Photos by Sean Ryan/Republic
Amanda Willuweit, of Gregory, is shown in a succession of photos while watching her son, Atlas, a 106-pounder on the Burke/Gregory team, wrestle at the Region 3B tournament Feb. 22 at Miller High School’s gymnasium.
Photo courtesy of Denelle Dvorak
Jody Kocer, of Wagner, watches a laptop video feed of her son, Alex Kocer, wrestling in Brookings while she was attending a Wagner High School wrestling meet earlier this month. Kocer has two sons competing in wrestling: Alex, a freshman for South Dakota State University, and David, a senior at Wagner High School. Both of her sons were competing the same night.