Article Source Written By: Stan Morris of the Journal Star

Dunlap is a little over a month into its first season of high school wrestling.

While wins may have been tough to come by, the enthusiasm for laying the groundwork and improving are evident.

“It’s been a great experience,” said coach Rick Mathern, who previously coached high school wrestling in North Dakota. “They’re learning what wrestling is all about. I’m just trying to keep the enthusiasm high and I’m good at that. That’s probably my best asset. We’re trying to enjoy the process.”

A roster that started out around 24 boys and girls has whittled down to 16. And the majority of those are in their first year of wrestling at any level.

Like captains Vivek Panicker and Ryan Schuck.

Panicker had only wrestled with friends before and decided to turn that into something competitive.

“I just thought, what could go wrong?” said Panicker, a junior who also competes in track and field. “Last two years of high school, might as well try something else new.”

Not a bad start. He finished fourth at 160 pounds at the varsity Chatham Glenwood Titans Invitational the first weekend of December.

“That was my first tournament ever,” Panicker said. “I’ve never wrestled in a high school tournament ever, so placing in my first one surprised me but I was really glad about it. It motivated me to do even better.”

Schuck, a sophomore, is not new to new adventures. He’s also a part of Dunlap’s two-year old lacrosse program. He was talked into coming out for wrestling by a teammate.

“Might as well test the waters,” he said. “I’ve had no experience. I couldn’t tell you how points worked or what you did in a wrestling match before. (But) I like the physicality of it. A lot of sports, you can’t win just off determination and practice and hard work. This, you have to grit and have to work through it and I enjoy that facet.”

Schuck was one of three Eagles to place at the Washington JV tournament on Dec. 21, coming in third at 182 pounds.

It was at Washington where Mathern began to notice a change in his young group.

“I could just see little gains starting to happen, from a toughness standpoint especially,” Mathern said. “We’re not rolling over like we were in December when we went to Chatham.”

Both Panicker and Schuck are excited about being on the ground floor of Dunlap’s new adventure.

“It’s an honor,” Schuck said. “I know in other sports I look up to the guys I see that have come first and set the groundwork. To be able to do that for people who come after us, I’m happy to be a part of this. And I know they’re going to improve upon it. We’ve got great freshmen, great people in the youth program.”

Dunlap is setting its sights on the Mid-Illini Conference JV meet Feb. 1 at Metamora.

“The reality is that is the competition level where I think we’ll be able to see some benchmarks happen,” Mathern said. “Our goal is we want to be better in that tournament than we were December 1.

″(Schuck and Panicker) have been great leaders for me. They came in with the strength that we needed and are doing everything they’re supposed to be doing in the room. I’m really hoping we’re able to turn some heads when we get to that JV regional in early February.”

Panick has already seen the improvements from everyone.

“We’re just trying to get in the motion of things, just trying to figure out how things work and I think we’ve done a pretty good job of that,” Panicker said. “We had to take it to the basics and figure out how to maybe just get a power half (move), or something simple. There’s good energy (in the wrestling room).”

The reception from coaches, fans and other area wrestlers has also impressed Mathern.

“There are some great coaches in this region,” Mathern said. “Everywhere we go, I have coaches tell us how jacked they are, so excited that we’re starting the program. It’s really awesome to see. We’re getting shellacked and (wrestlers like state ranked Jared Dowell of Pekin and Broc Shymansky of Farmington) are letting us know to keep it going and are encouraging our kids.”

Mathern is already looking forward March, when he can begin implementing an offseason workout regimen, have a team camp and begin to build a parents booster club, among other things.

“This is a fly by seat of your pants year, but it’s been so much fun because the joy these guys get out of watching their teammates get wins, when wins are hard to come by, is fantastic,” Mathern said. “They’re not jaded by the sport yet. Wrestling is hard. It brings a lot of people down sometimes, but the excitement is real.”

Stan Morris can be reached at 686-3214 or smorris@pjstar.com.