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THE GRIND: Pinecrest Academy's Miller leading first-year wrestling team
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Pinecrest Academy freshman Nick Miller has had to be like another coach on the Paladins’ first-year wrestling team. - photo by Micah Green

When Nick Miller thought about high school wrestling when he was in the fourth grade, he envisioned the program he’d join would be full of accomplished and skilled wrestlers ready to teach him a lesson.

“I’d just get killed,” Miller said.

At the time, Miller wrestled with the Lambert High School’s youth program but attended Pinecrest Academy, which didn’t offer wrestling. The Longhorns were all Miller knew. Lambert was just in its second year of existence but it nonetheless painted a picture for Miller of what high school wrestling would be.

Instead, near the end of the Paladins’ practice Monday, there were almost half as many youth wrestlers as Pinecrest’s varsity team. Seven mats were laid out in the middle of the upper school gym. Seven varsity wrestlers sparred during drills, including Miller. His dad joined to even the numbers. One team manager whistled to start and stop drills. Head coach Martin Podmolik paced around the action.

This is Pinecrest’s first-year wrestling program. It’s not what Miller had in mind for his high school wrestling career.

“Not completely,” Miller said, “but it’s close enough.”

Miller stands out from his Paladins teammates in virtually every way. The freshman, who wrestles at 138 and 145 pounds, has been wrestling for six years, so when he and his partner practice a wrestling move called the coffee grinder at Monday’s practice, Miller’s movement is powerful and swift while his partner’s is slower, more deliberate. Compared, Miller’s partner must feel like he’s been attacked by a lion. Still, at times Miller stops at a certain point of the move and holds his position. He talks to his partner, giving him short instructions.

It’s a role thrust upon Miller out of necessity. Miller’s six years of wrestling experience trumps all of his teammates who have just taken up the sport this season.

“I’ve sympathized with them a lot,” Miller said. “I remember my first year was probably my hardest year of wrestling. They’re getting it at the high school level with a lot harder practices than I’d ever gotten before. I’m happy they’re still showing up. That’s the most important part of wrestling, just showing up.”

Miller filled the same role last year as an eighth grader on Lambert’s middle school feeder team. The sixth and seventh graders looked up to him; he was the older wrestler about to head off to high school.

Except, for Miller, high school still held some uncertainty. He wanted to wrestle, but Pinecrest didn’t have a team.

Miller had options. With his experience wrestling in Lambert’s feeder program, he could become a Longhorn. Other private schools with wrestling teams made overtures.

Miller hesitated at the thought of going anywhere other than Pinecrest. He’d been attending the small private school since pre-kindergarten. This was where all his friends were.

Pinecrest made his decision easy. The school’s administration decided to start a wrestling program this past spring after suggestions from several families, including Miller’s.

“It gave me clarity,” Miller said. “It let me know where I was going to be in the future.”

Miller now has all sorts of plans for the future, most ambitious of which is to be the school’s first-ever wrestling state champion. And he’s off to a good start: through two events, Miller is 4-1.

Miller has plans for his teammates too. He hopes he and a few others can qualify for the GHSA Traditional State Championships to get a glimpse of the mayhem of the event – the walls of spectators, the cacophony of coaches and fans, the dizziness of all the wrestling going on at once.

Until then, Miller’s advice to his teammates is still simple.

“Keep showing up,” Miller said.