SCHUYLER — In Jeremy Hlavac’s first seven years as a coach with Schuyler’s wrestling team, the Warriors had 18 state qualifiers and five state medalists.
Last year alone, Schuyler had eight state qualifiers and two medalists.
Only two of those qualifiers were seniors, and four were sophomores.
Hlavac, in his fourth year as the team's head coach, has the wrestling program rolling.
“It’s always been a big sport for our school,” Hlavac said. “Within the last few years, the kids have had a lot of success.”
Success builds excitement and the Schuyler community is embracing the wrestling program. In Hlavac’s first year as head coach, he had about 35 kids out, a similar number to Columbus High.
This year, he had 65 wrestlers to start the season, including 11 girls. A couple of kids have left the team since then, but there are still 60-plus.
The junior high team has had 40 or more kids the past four seasons, and that’s just two grades.
This season’s freshman class includes 24 wrestlers.
“That’s great,” senior Caden Yrkoski said. “That just means our team is going to be stronger in the next couple years.”
Isaac Hernandez, another senior on the team, started wrestling as a seventh-grader. Nobody in his family had ever wrestled before, but a friend talked him into it. He figured it was another sport to try and another way to stay active.
His freshman season was Hlavac’s first year as Schuyler's head coach. He’s watched the team grow and evolve since then.
“I remember back then, it was mostly white people that would do it,” Hernandez said. “Now, most of them are from different cultures. Everybody knows this is a program that Schuyler has that’s successful. Kids want to see success in their life and wrestling is a great way to do that.”
Yrkoski has seen the mix of different cultures bring the team together.
“I think it makes our team stronger. It makes us closer,” he said.
It took until his sophomore season for Hernandez to really commit to wrestling. Once he started to experience some success, that drove him to get better.
“I like having success when it’s on you. When you have success, you bring that good feeling to your family,” Hernandez said.
Now seniors, Hernandez and Yrkoski are tasked with passing on the expectations to younger kids. Hlavac does very little of that. He’s there to teach, handle discipline and manage a group of 60 high schoolers.
The upperclassmen take care of the rest.
“I try to hold myself to a higher standard,” Yrkoski said.
In a wrestling room where 30 people makes it feel crowded, the size of the team has forced Hlavac to split up practices. On Mondays, everyone is together. That’s when the upperclassmen instill the expectations in the younger kids.
On Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, the younger and inexperienced wrestlers practice from 6-7:30 a.m. The varsity and top junior varsity wrestlers practice in the afternoon following school.
That allows more attention to be placed on each kid.
In the morning, the coaches work on basic fundamentals. The afternoon is more one-on-one and live wrestling, trying to perfect everything.
The morning group learned the expectations quickly.
“When kids show up late, I don’t have to do very much yelling. The kids take it upon themselves,” Hlavac said. “He catches it from 35 other kids.”
The system is paying off. The competition level within the team drives kids to get better.
The Warriors have improved each week this season, finishing third at the York Invite on Dec. 2 and second at the Boys Town Invite the following weekend before winning Saturday's Wisner-Pilger Invite, where the Schuyler junior varsity team added a sixth-place finish.
The participation numbers allow Schuyler to field a full, competitive junior varsity team, where kids get to wrestle 25 to 35 matches a year.
By the time they make the varsity team, they’re ready for it, which is exactly what Hlavac wants.
“As a Schuyler wrestling program, I want to put the best 14 kids on the mat at a varsity tournament, and if there’s a kid that goes down with an injury or academic issue, I want to be confident in my first JV kid that he can step into that role and wrestle with those top 14 kids,” the head coach said.
In the future, that might be one of Schuyler’s nine female wrestlers.
The Warriors started with 11 girls at the beginning of the season, but have since lost a couple because of scheduling conflicts.
Only West Point-Beemer has a similar number of girls on its wrestling team.
So it’s no surprise that Schuyler’s first all-girl tournament of the season was in West Point on Dec. 9.
Freshman Stefany Rocha got the wrestling craze going among female students at Schuyler Central High School. She used to be a wrestling manager, but decided to start competing as an eighth-grader.
“I became interested in it and wanted to give it a try,” she said.
In the fall, she went to Hlavac and told him she wanted to join the wrestling team.
Hlavac was thrilled, but also told her it would be better if she could convince another girl to sign up so they could practice together.
So Rocha talked a friend into it.
“Once other girls heard there were two coming out, then two more came to me. Before you know it, I had 11,” Hlavac said.
It didn't take much for Rocha to convince the other girls.
“I just wanted to encourage them,” she said. “It’s a new experience.”
Rocha won her first match in West Point, and she has big plans for the rest of her season and career.
“I’d like to win a lot more matches,” she said. “Since I also wrestle in boys tournaments, I’d like to beat a couple of them, as well."
Hlavac will be there for her and the other female wrestlers every step of the way.
“It’s great for those ladies,” he said. “If they want to compete at tournaments then I’m going to do everything I can to get them there.”
After all, Hlavac’s end goal is to always have a consistent program. He doesn't want his team to drop off from one year to the next.
Right now, that’s just one team, but he can envision a future with an all-girls lineup.
“I like the aspect of a girls program where girls are wrestling girls,” he said.
While the girls, most of whom are first-time wrestlers, continue to work and improve each day, the varsity lineup has its eyes set on Omaha in February.
The Warriors were 16th last season at the Class B state tournament, but are hoping to leap into the top 10 this season.
It’s all part of Hlavac’s plan to keep elevating the program.
“I had a coach ask me once if I would rather win the state tournament one time in your coaching career or be a contender year in and year out? I would rather be a contender,” Hlavac said.
With 62 total wrestlers and 24 freshmen on the team, the Warriors are on their way to being one.