The “bell lap” is a slang term for describing the last lap of any distance event in track and field. Since Sports Editor Kyle Cajero was a longtime track athlete — and because he couldn’t come up with a creative name — he went back to his more athletic roots to name his semi-recurring column.
This installment is about the Battle for the Paddle.
The shrieking was inescapable, yet electric.
With two raucous student sections pitted against each other, a rivalry game on the line and all the action unfolding beneath a lone, interrogation room-esque spotlight, the wrestling matches at last Friday’s Battle for the Paddle were unlike any wrestling events I’ve covered.
Nothing from my limited wrestling coverage experience — in which athletes usually struggled in obscurity while Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” pulsed through Kellogg High School’s sweaty, humid gym — could prepare me for the Battle for the Paddle.
Only noise from concerts I’ve seen rivaled the raucous Lakeland crowd that night. The green-clad students fell into a terrifying rhythm: As Lakeland’s wrestlers asserted their wills on Sandpoint’s, the crowd’s screeching crescendoed, the yellow glow sticks shook faster and faster and the sound of the students’ footsteps rumbled rapidly like a passing train. Once the referee’s shrill whistle sliced through the gym, the crowd burst into joyful cheers.
And to their credit, the Lakeland crowd didn’t lull once the next pair of wrestlers stepped onto the mat.
Instead, they shrieked again.
Wrestling is, at its core, about restricting movement. It’s a sport of slow, methodical subjugation. The best wrestlers know matches are won with patience, timing and precision; reckless moves and thoughtless parries can either expose weak spots, or make one vulnerable to takedowns. To borrow a line from Casey Olesen that has stuck with me throughout this season, wrestling is like a chess match.
Yet cerebral wrestling is nothing without pure strength.
Few sports are as physically demanding as wrestling. One could argue that in this era of personal foul calls, concussion research and players leaving the gridiron earlier than ever, wrestling is athletics’ last bastion of brute force, pure strength and traditional manhood. Every sinewy arm and every bulging muscle beneath red, spandex uniforms attested to the fact that Sandpoint’s wrestlers — most of whom worked tirelessly in the offseason to carve their bodies into the leanest, strongest forms possible — could not be weak.
After Lakeland took an early lead in the lightweights, the Bulldogs needed to be strong.
So throughout the night, once a defeated Sandpoint wrestler walked off the mat, a larger, more muscular athlete took their place. But it didn’t matter. The result was always the same.
“Can you believe he’s only a sophomore?” the man sitting next to me asked as Tag Benefield entered the ring.
After thinking about of the first time I saw Benefield at the George Wild Tourney, I couldn’t say yes; the 16-year-old Benefield is built like a grown man.
As we talked about Benefield’s exploits on the gridiron (Benefield won 4A IEL Defensive Player of the Year honors back in November), the James Wright poem “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio” entered my mind. This wasn’t an anomaly; I’ve revisited Wright’s ode to small-town sports several times since moving to Sandpoint.
Even though it’s about football instead of wrestling, the poem’s theme of a community rallying around its high school sports team rang true in that moment. Just as the steel mill workers, bar patrons and night watchmen in Wright’s poem were “dreaming of heroes,” Sandpoint supporters from all walks of life and I dreamed of a hero to save the Bulldogs as Lakeland inched closer to winning the coveted paddle.
But I also couldn’t forget the somber undertones in Wright’s poem. People use sports to escape reality. Life outside the confines of sporting events is rarely so simple or so glamorous. Heroes of yesteryear futility grasp at the past. Spouses are unloved. Children get hurt. Life’s hardships lurk along the fringes of every rosy memory. Yet in spite of it all, we escape through sports even if — to borrow the poem’s last stanza — our “sons grow suicidally beautiful at the beginning of October, and gallop terribly against each other’s bodies.”
And boy, did Benefield gallop.
My lasting image of the Battle for the Paddle wasn’t Benefield’s, nor was it Malachi Fleck’s 8-7 nail-biter.
Instead, I pictured Heather Wallace, surging up and out of her opponent’s grasp in the third round of her fight, taking a quick step, only be brought down to the mat once more.
But Wallace kept fighting.
She didn’t let one failed attempt define her, nor did she let one failure prevent her from trying again. She dug deep within herself to escape the moment of struggle, and to try to be the hero Sandpoint needed.
And in a way, these are the heroes we should dream about: those who urge us to get up even in the face of hardship. To get up even as the crowd clamors against us. To get up in spite of ourselves, our limitations, hurts and mistakes. To get up even when we want to escape.
To keep fighting.