Wrestlers reflect on family that took them to OFSAA
By Darren Lum
This year’s Red Hawks wrestling season is over, capped off by a trip to the all-provincials for Grade 12 Nic Graham and Grade 11 Eli Samson, who won’t forget the experience and the team that made it possible.
Neither athlete earned a podium finish at the Ontario Federation of School Athletic Associations championships in Sault Ste. Marie from March 2 to 4, but what they did was represent their school, their team and the area well as athletes and citizens.
Coach Paul Klose said both wrestlers represented the school “with class and pride.”
In the four years Graham has wrestled, “He has shown continued development and represented Hal High proudly.”
Starting with two match wins, Graham advanced to wrestle in the 89 kilogram weight class on the second day of the three-day event, but would lose his first match of the day ending his run. This was his third all-provincial final and he finished in the top-12 to end his Hawks career.
Klose called Samson’s .500 record of two wins and two losses in the 83 kilogram weight class a “respectable result on the provincial stage.” He added this “experience will serve him well for the future.”
Making OFSAA this year for Samson was a breakthrough, finishing with a Central Ontario Secondary Schools Association silver.
In last year’s COSSA championship, the Grade 11 wrestler lost both matches, which ended his season.
The difference this year in advancing to the all-provincials for the first time was about having a different mindset.
“If you go into a match with the mindset of ‘OK, try not to get hurt that much.’ You already know what’s going to happen. You’re not going to do good, right? But if you change your mindset and say, ‘OK, I’m going to do this and coming in first, second and going to OFSAA, it just changes the game,” Graham said.
Samson said he was excited and nervous about his first all-provincial competition.
“It just blew me away,” he said, referring to walking through the doors and seeing the weigh-ins for all the weight classes. “Just looking at my line-up at 83 [kilograms] and I could see all the people that are there. It’s a little bit scary. It’s a little bit frightening and it’s also exciting,” he said.
Now that he’s gone through it, he’s ready to return to the all-provincial stage next year.
Graham’s advice to his younger teammate before the event was to enjoy the experience and have fun.
“It’s your first OFSAA so you have nothing to lose. You’re good. You have all the tools,” he said.
Samson said the advice helped calm him before going.
“It changed my mind set because Nic had the mindset of placing pretty good. Like Nic ... he’s like a big brother. I want to follow him. I want to do what he’s doing. He’s setting the bar high. I want to go with him,” he said.
Graham’s focus on this third trip was to improve on his top-20 finish last year in spite of a sore right shoulder, which was sustained during an on-mat practice two weeks before.
“I knew what I had to do and I did it. My shoulder was holding me back,” he said. “It was definitely holding me back, but I was still going. I was still trying my best, wrestling my best.”
He adds his shoulder was weaker and the range of motion was diminished.
“I still wasn’t letting that stop me,” he said. “I set a goal for myself that I wanted to get top-six [at OFSAA]. I unsuccessfully didn’t reach my goal, but I ended coming in 12th place, I believe. It was hard wrestling. It was fun wrestling.”
In talking about the wrestling community, Graham said, it’s “one massive family.”
“We are all there to win. We’re all there to kick each other’s butts, but at the same time everyone helps out everyone. Good sportsmanship all around,” he said.
One example of this is the I.E. Weldon Secondary School coach, Maurice LeClair who provided in-tournament motivation, advice and help. They appreciated his help.
His COSSA trip included an opening loss, which put him in the consolation bracket, forcing him to win outright to earn a third place. This finish was disappointing, as he was the top Kawartha seed entering competition. However the third place enabled him to wrestle a challenge match with the second place finisher for the all-provincial berth, which he won by points.
He said losing that opening match motivated him and pushed him in the challenge match.
Recalling the challenges he faced, the top-12 finish was satisfying. “Like a brick wall, I just broke through. I would not give up because I wanted it bad,” he said.
Graham said his track record at OFSAA included steady improvement. In his first year he lost both matches. His second year he finished in the top-20.
“This year? Top-12. I’ll take it,” he said. “For what I’ve gone through? Yep.”
Among the other challenges the two faced came during practices in the lead up to OFSAA.
With the shoulder soreness, Graham could not wrestle so that left Samson without competition close in age. The Grade 11 had to wrestle his coaches. Graham worked on his cardio.
They love their coaches Fockler and Klose for the “unbelievable” support this year and all the years they’ve been part of the “family,” the Red Hawks wrestling team.
“No matter what they didn’t give up on you. The coaches have been there for me for four years now. They’ve motivated. Inspiration. All this. ... They made a team into a family and a sport into a passion, I think,” Graham said.
The support has meant a lot to Samson, who joined the team in Grade 9 when his sister was wrestling.
He said ever since he started he was “glued into this family.”
The ongoing negotiations between the province and the teachers’ union continue to cloud the athletic landscape for secondary school athletes and teams. One result is teachers are unable to leave for sporting events during school hours.
The wrestlers knew this and still wanted their coaches to join them in Sault Ste. Marie so they came together to write a letter to Trillium Lakelands District School Board director of education Larry Hope and the school trustees.
Although the coaches were not permitted to share in the all-provincial experience, the letter prompted a face-to-face meeting with Hope, which resulted in a decision to have the school’s principal Chris Boulay clear his schedule to make the seven-hour round trip to Sault Ste. Marie and spend three days and two nights with the wrestlers. Individuals with an Ontario College of Teachers certificate (in good standing) such as administrative staff and retired teachers are required for teams and athletes to compete.
The future of the Hawks is in good hands.
The wrestling season is over, but this all-provincial experience is just a beginning of a new chapter for Samson. The returning athlete is aware of how he will likely be a leader on the team next year like Graham and knows he can’t be someone he is not.
“I definitely know I can’t be the next Nic Graham,” he said. “I can be the newer Eli.”
Graham chimed in: “I couldn’t be the next Aidan Coles.”
Coles is easily one of the most successful wrestlers in Red Hawks history, having earned multiple trips and consecutive OFSAA podium finishes. He is the only male wrestler to reach the podium and graduated last year.
When it comes to being a leader the advice Graham has for his teammate is to be confident.
“Don’t let people drag you down. If they’re not working hard, motivate them. Keep them moving. Just have fun with it. It’s not pure competition. We’re in this sport to have fun and just fun all the way through. We’re here to work hard. Dedicate and help others and hopefully others will help you too because I know for my last year I hope I taught you guys something. I hope I taught the whole team something because I know for a fact the whole team taught me something. I know every individual person has taught me something about wrestling and life itself,” he said.
Note: Two weeks before OFSAA the Hawks performed well at COSSA with four top four finishes, including Graham and Samson. Grade 9 Levi Samson finished fourth in the 83 kilogram weight class and Ethan Coles finished third. Coles wrestled in the challenge match for a berth to OFSAA, but narrowly lost.