Since it began less than a decade ago, Pinecrest Academy’s wrestling program has shown a penchant for rolling with whatever hurdles are thrown at it.
That mindset shines through even in their practice venue. It’s not a shiny and new facility built especially for them. It’s not on the school’s campus. It’s not really even a practice facility at all.
The Paladins’ green mats are located in the back room of a cookie factory, accessed through a side door that’s cracked open. A strong, sweet aroma fills the air and never leaves, and while the room is small, it has what the Paladins need to work.
That unusual accommodation was born out of necessity. When the program started, the team naturally practiced at the school’s gym, but had to do so from 7-9 p.m. Combine that with having to set up and break down mats before and after, and the situation became untenable for high school students that also had studies to focus on.
“We realized we could not continue that journey,” Pinecrest wrestling coach Mark Schmidt said. “It was too much for these young men to do that.
“They love coming here. It gets us away from all the distractions and we can focus, which our sport requires. We love it. They like the smell of the cookies. It keeps them disciplined a little bit.”
And for the rest of this season, the Paladins will have to apply their adaptation skills to other, more important issues. While the program has two stalwarts in Joe and Mark Metz, the latter of which coming off a state title, they’ve lost two key seniors to injury. Joe is the last senior left, and this week, he’s on a senior trip. That leaves the burden of competition mostly on underclassmen, but thankfully for Pinecrest, those wrestlers have made progress.
“We've had some setbacks that were unanticipated,” Schmidt said. “However, if that's the bad news, the good news is we've had some of the freshman and the underclassmen step up like I was hoping they would. They've started to produce.”
Pinecrest’s team is not the largest in terms of numbers – they don’t have any wrestlers at 106 or 113, which leaves some holes in their lineup. But in terms of developing young talent, they make do with what they have, and that’s shown in the practice schedule. Having upperclassmen as talented as the Metz brothers really aids that development — Mark Metz has more than 20 wins this year and has only lost twice, each time to a state champion from a higher classification.
“We just continue to move that talent around,” Schmidt said. “We like to do our practices where we wrestle at the same weight and then we go down a weight and up a weight. We kind of slide them. If you get the younger men and the less experienced ones to work out with these guys, then their skillset rises. They have to stay with them just to practice at all. So much of our sport is feel, and these guys are starting to learn that feeling and sense of movement.”
For sophomore Breckin Barbee, having Mark Metz as a teammate is invaluable. Barbee was an alternate at state last year and was one match away from placing. The match he lost was by one point and it ended a second before he took his opponent down. He’s replayed that match in his mind over and over, and hopes that working with a state champ can get him to new heights.
“Working with Mark, he's taught me a lot,” Barbee said. “I knew him before wrestling, but now being here, it's just taken off. We've just become great friends and it's really easy to work with him.”
Freshman Brock Barbee, Breckin’s younger brother, is also instrumental in what Pinecrest is trying to do this year. At 152, Brock is actually at a higher weight class than his brother, who is dropping down to 132.
“It's good. This is where I get to take all my anger out on him, I guess,” Brock said. “We also learn from each other.”
And they won’t be the only ones the Paladins rely on as the sectionals and state approach. With the loss of a 170-pounder that Schmidt felt could have been a state placer, Will West, who just became eligible, will take that spot. And of course, Joe Metz’s absence will not be a long one, and when he gets back, his brother and the rest of the team will be excited to see him continue to push for a long-awaited state title.
“It's kind of taken over his mind,” Mark said. “He's really focused. He's really excited to get in there at state.
“I think the team is really good at rolling with the flow. Joe's going to be here — he's going to be back. We're pretty used to it.”