Two years ago, Kennedy High School wrestling Coach Duke Beattie made a radical move that is paying off now.
Beattie had a group of returning starters -- "which were good, talent-wise" -- good enough to be a contender. But because they had a poor attitude and practice habits, Beattie told them he'd "fire them, even if it meant losing every match."
He followed through with his threat and Kennedy finished 0-11.
The wrestlers who remained to serve as punching bags that season have turned the Cavaliers into the dominant team in Montgomery County in a league that includes Paint Branch, Wootton and Sherwood, all powerhouses. Going into tonight's county wrestling tournament, Kennedy appears to be the team to beat.
Not bad for a team that has only one wrestler with tournament experience and a bunch of "unsung heroes," in Beattie's words.
"There are no stars on this team," Beattie said. "The backbone of this team is the unsung, ones without a lot of talent that fight their faces off. You don't have a successful team with just one or two (champion) wrestlers."
Kennedy's team includes sophomore lightweight Wayne Niebel (11-0), who, along with brother Andy (10-0-1), are among four unbeaten Cavaliers this season, as well as being part of four brother combinations on the team.
"It's a big step from boys club," Niebel, in his first year on varsity, said. "I didn't know what to expect, but Coach and Andy helped me a lot."
Andy Niebel, a runner-up in the state at 145 pounds last year, said that's nothing new for this team. "We've always been family-oriented for a long time. I just tried to help him," he said.
The team is close on and off the mat. The 27 or so members often eat lunch with Beattie in the school's cafeteria. The wrestlers also help out with concessions at football games.
"There's a lot of camaraderie here," Beattie said. "They're also an adult group, a super set of kids. It's not like you're talking to a bunch of 10-year-olds. You can talk to them like adults."
That's what Beattie learned from his coach, Bob McNelis, whom he succeeded in 1978. During his wrestling career at Kennedy, Beattie won county and regional titles in 1974.
Now, his claim is having one of the county's best wrestling squads. Kennedy won the 12-team Paint Branch Christmas tournament, and recently, the Cavaliers defeated previously unbeaten Sherwood, 37-23.
That match featured one of the more interesting battles of the season, between Kennedy's Steve Osterman (10-0-1) and Sherwood's Bobby Truby, the defending state champ at 128 pounds. Prior to this season, Osterman had seen more than his share of the Truby family, having gone against Bobby's older brother Mike, a two-time state champion, with little success.
However, in the recent match with the younger Truby, the first between them, they fought to a 2-2 draw.
"I wrestled with him in boys club," Osterman said. "I was content with the tie."
Beattie has team depth, especially in the lighter weight classes. In fact, the Cavaliers are so strong that some veterans, including Emory Morrison, who was 9-2 last season, have participated in few matches this fall.
Nicholas (9-0), a senior, is only in his second year wrestling at any level. He credits Beattie for his success.
"They (Beattie and the other coach) tell me to stay out of trouble with my opponents when it gets to the third period," Nicholas said. "I guess they didn't want me to get caught up in the pressure.
"I just try to stick to basics. What I don't have in skill, I make up in determination."
The first thing Mark Byrd (9-1 at 121 pounds) learned was "discipline, and that's what I need. If I didn't have (Beattie), I'd have screwed around on the mat."
"Never liked anything I did," was the way Osterman described Beattie's feelings on his moves. "He helped me improve my (stance). He's the best coach I've had."
"You really stay in shape," said Bryan Kline, who is 9-2 at 155.
"We're a well-drilled team," Beattie said. "I have a good idea of what they're going to do on the mat, and they wrestle with their heads.
"I've seen steady improvement. The guy that's improved the most though is me," he said. "At least I tried to get them to understand it's the effort you put in that makes the difference. You try and have class about the things you do. And I expect an honest effort from them in a match."