Lansing has a rich history in wrestling, with two-time world champion Kyle Dake at the forefront. However, the Bobcats did not have a team last season. Upperclassmen interest was minimal, and instead of forming a vastly undermanned squad, the school decided to put the varsity team on the shelf for a year.
Now, the Bobcats are back. Leading the way is first-year head coach Gene Nighman, who is a Cornell University Hall of Fame wrestler and an All-American during his time with the Big Red. Nighman has 20+ years coaching experience at both his alma mater and SUNY Cortland, but coaching at the high school level will be a new experience for him.
“I have to go back to basics quite a bit,” Nighman said. “The kids are all younger and don’t have a lot of experience. So, it’s making sure they have a strong foundation of technique. Quite honestly, the technique I teach on my end, although I’m starting at a basic level, I’m teaching them college-level techniques. I’m not going to show them stuff that’s only going to work in high school. I’m teaching them the highest level.”
The team composition is, expectedly, very young. The Bobcats consist of seven freshmen, three sophomores, one eighth-grader, and one senior. That one senior is Gabe Stevens, who is a student at Southern Cayuga. Stevens wrestled for Lansing two years ago, then Groton last year when the Bobcats did not have a team.
“With Gabe [Stevens] coming in, it was a real nice situation because now we have one senior who’s been through it all before,” Nighman said. “Obviously, it was a no-brainer for me to make him the captain of the team. He is a wonderful young man and a mentor to the younger guys, teaching them the ropes and giving them inside tips and so on and so forth.”
On the opposite side, Owen Emmick is the youngest on the team as an eighth-grader, but he’s one of the best on the Bobcats according to Nighman. His older brother Jack is a freshman, and they are currently tied with the second-most wins on the team at three.
“It’s really a pleasure for me to have those guys wrestling this year,” Nighman said. “Jack wrestled a bit last year but not a lot during the season. Owen, of course, was in seventh grade last year, and I didn’t know he was interested in wrestling varsity this year until basically the first day of practice. He showed up and said, ‘Hey coach, I think I want to wrestle.’ Those guys do have a lot of experience in youth wrestling and they are doing exceptionally well.”
With a young team comes a lot of energy, and Nighman explained the mindset that his squad has this season.
“These guys all have that killer instinct,” Nighman said. “That’s what I love about this team. They are hungry and they are going out there and they want to pin their opponent. In our match against Odessa-Montour, the five wins that we scored, we pinned all five. They’re not satisfied with winning by a point or two, which is great because that was how my instincts were.”
With the right attitude in place, Nighman has big expectations for the team down the road as they all get older and learn more of his techniques.
“I’m the eternal optimist,” Nighman said. “I’m hoping that by the time these guys are seniors that we’re not just competing at the sectional level. I expect to be one of the top teams in the state.”
Judging by how much camaraderie is displayed on the current team, one would never guess that they did not wrestle together last year.
“Chemistry is great,” Nighman said. “Young student athletes, they make friends so easily. Within a few days, Gabe [Stevens] was best buddies with these guys.
They all have common interests. They’re all working hard together. The meshing of their personalities happened so quickly.”
With the history it has, Lansing deserves to have a wrestling team at the varsity level. Last year was an unfortunate exception and part of an issue that’s affecting the sport as a whole beyond just Lansing, according to Nighman.
“Unfortunately, that lack of participation, it’s not just at Lansing,” Nighman said. “It’s somewhat an issue in sports like wrestling. You see the numbers in football going down. The world is changing a little bit with the advent of technology making things easier on everyone. There are less and less of the blue collar families out there and wrestling’s a blue collar sport.”
Lansing’s embracing the blue collar spirit this season and will be working toward the grand future expectations of coach Nighman. Up next for the Bobcats is a dual meet against Moravia on Thursday, Dec. 19, followed by a match against Marathon on Jan. 8.
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