Los­ing to a gi­ant

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - TO THE MAT -

un­der­sized. Other op­po­nents in the weight-class would have nearly 100 pounds on him.

Khalil McFad­den, one of four Ban­neker Blake heavy­weights en­tered into the tour­na­ment along­side Dakuwuan, wasn’t so con­fi­dent. He had seen the size of the other kids in the weight class. They were big and tall and strong. He an­nounced to the team that if he had to wres­tle the op­po­nent the boys had nick­named “the gi­ant” — who weighed in at nearly 280 pounds — he would lie down and let him­self be pinned.

Cole­man, over­hear­ing this talk, feared such a de­featist at­ti­tude would poi­son the team. “Tech­nique beats strength,” he in­ter­jected.

Fi­nally, the first whis­tle in a ref’s mouth blew, and then it felt like all the whis­tles were blow­ing. The matches were com­ing fast, and Cole­man and Vazquez be­gan run­ning around the gym try­ing to keep up with their 10 ath­letes, some of whom were wrestling at the same time.

To ob­serve a youth wrestling tour­na­ment in Bal­ti­more is to watch pan­de­mo­nium. Wrestling is a sport that even­tu­ally in­stills a stoic mind­set in its ad­her­ents. But few are born that way.

So, upon their first ex­pe­ri­ences on a wrestling mat, the good chil­dren of Bal­ti­more will cry, throw fits and gen­er­ally act out. Espe­cially af­ter a loss. The deci­bels in the gym rose as the first round be­gan.

McKim had en­tered a squad in the tour­na­ment this year, and there was lit­tle doubt they would field the top team.

Bal­ti­more Col­le­giate formed a cir­cle on an open mat, beat­ing the ground in uni­son, look­ing se­ri­ous and revved up.

First up for Ban­neker Blake was lit­tle Eli­jah, who at 75 pounds was the small­est kid on the team. He shot in ag­gres­sively against his op­po­nent from McKim, but he was out­matched, and pinned quickly. The McKim side cheered loudly. Eli­jah got up with tears in his eyes. Michael tried to com­fort him, but Eli­jah pushed him away and stormed off.

Later, Eli­jah would say that what re­ally up­set him was a lack of sup­port. As he wres­tled, all he’d been able to hear were the shouts for his op­po­nent. He no­ticed that some of his team­mates had stayed in the stands dur­ing his match. “It was hard,” he said, “be­cause no­body was here to cheer me on.”

Then it was Michael’s turn to cry. He’d been gain­ing weight rapidly and could no longer make his 95-pound weight class. He would have to wres­tle at 100 pounds and was scared of fac­ing kids that size. Pinned by a boy from Cherry Hill, he walked over to a cor­ner of the gym alone, tears run­ning down his face.

He had been one of the first kids to join the wrestling team at Ban­neker Blake, and he was de­mor­al­ized. His hard work never seemed to pay off. Af­ter two years, he was still win­less.

Other Ban­neker wrestlers lost too, but then the tide started to turn. Collin Lo­max, who was emerg­ing as a leader on the team, won a match, and Azziz Grooms, a light­weight who liked to post rap videos on­line, pinned his op­po­nent from Mor­rell Park. Sadeeq took the mat against a kid from Waverly whom he pinned in just 37 sec­onds. The boy re­acted an­grily, yelling un­con­trol­lably. His coach picked him up, put him over his shoul­der like a baby, and car­ried him off. “I don’t want to wres­tle no more!” the boy shouted. “Get off of me!”

As the first round neared its close, spec­ta­tors gath­ered around the mat clos­est to the door for a mar­quee matchup. Dakuwuan, un­de­feated at lighter weight classes, had drawn the “gi­ant” the boys had feared at weigh-ins.

Dakuwuan re­mained con­fi­dent.

The whis­tle blew and the two boys be­gan hand-fight­ing. Cole­man sat on his knees, lit­tle Pa­trick in his lap, yelling in­struc­tions. Vazquez paced back and forth. From the out­set it was clear that Dakuwuan was the bet­ter wrestler. In a fair world, that should be worth some­thing. He quickly scored two take­downs. The gi­ant was big, but Dakuwuan was smooth. He moved his feet well; he had su­pe­rior balance and agility.

“Hands up! Hands up! Snap him down!” the coaches shouted as Dakuwuan piled up points. “Get be­hind him!”

As the match wore on, it grew more chaotic. Dakuwuan, on top, tried to rock his huge op­po­nent onto his back. He got sloppy with the move, and the gi­ant boy from McHenry ended up on top of Dakuwuan, the 100-pound weight dif­fer­ence plain for all to see. Flat on his back, Dakuwuan fought hard, but he was too small.

The ref slapped the mat. Dakuwuan’s dream of be­com­ing the 2018 city cham­pion had died. He got up slowly, look­ing bewildered. He shook his op­po­nent’s large hand, then pat­ted his ri­val on the shoul­der, as if to ac­knowl­edge he had been beaten by a bet­ter man. Then he walked around the mat aim­lessly for a mo­ment, not know­ing what to do next.

A shift, and some hope

As the tour­na­ment marched on, five Ban­neker Blake wrestlers ad­vanced to the cham­pi­onship fi­nals: Azziz, Sadeeq, Rosano Har­ris, An­toine and Collin. Azziz, Rosano and Collin lost close matches to tough op­po­nents.

At 85 pounds, Sadeeq trailed his op­po­nent, from Bal­ti­more Col­le­giate, late in the match. But he ral­lied in the fi­nal sec­onds to win 10-7. He ran over and leaped into Vazquez’s arms. To­gether, they jumped up and down in cel­e­bra­tion.

DIANA SUGG/BAL­TI­MORE SUN

Af­ter two sea­sons, eighth-grader Michael Rawls wins his first match. It took him a minute to re­al­ize he had won. Then he ran around the mat, hug­ging the ref­eree, coaches and oth­ers. He never gave up.

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