The History of Wrestling at AJA
Over the course of the couple of years following the merging of two schools, the wrestling team at AJA lost some of its traditions and decreased in size. A deep dive into AJA’s wrestling team history, specifically before the merger, gives some background as to why this happened.
In an interview, High School General Studies Instructional Leader Mr. Joel Rojek compared wrestling when he first started working at the school to what it looks like now. Mr. Rojek said,“The wrestling program when I first started working at YA was really strong.” All of the team members were very committed to wrestling, which may be partially because of the “rivalry” between the basketball and wrestling teams. He explained, “They were both accomplished teams that people wanted to join, but the seasons were the same, so, for the most part, you were a wrestling person or a basketball person.” Due to the coinciding seasons, students interested in both sports had to make the choice between which team they would rather join. Both teams aimed to get as many members as they could, leading to very committed teammates and a sense of competition that influenced the teams to work harder.
Former wrestling captain Ben Krohn, who graduated YA in 2003, described what wrestling meant to him: “When I came to YA in 9th grade, I wasn’t really super excited to be there…[because] I felt like I was missing out on the big school experience,” Ben said. “It wasn’t until I joined the wrestling team that I felt like I had found my place, and I felt like I belonged. All the feelings I had of missing out from the other high school experiences went away. The group of guys on the team really formed some strong bonds throughout the years.”
Ben was a dedicated member of the team, and as the years went on he became the wrestling team’s captain. Ben strived to be like his captains from when he first started wrestling. He said they “made me feel like I belonged and they exhibited toughness that helped form us into a strong team and me into a stronger individual.”
A lot of time and sweat was put into each practice. “We would start practice right after school and I think [we] went until about 6:30 p.m. each night,” Ben explained. Ben and Mr. Rojek both noted that the coaches had a really rigorous conditioning program that aimed to teach the team to develop the strength and skills to be successful wrestlers.
Wrestling was significant at YA, and it was exemplified both on and off of the mat. The school hosted around one to two matches a year, and any student who was available came out to support the team. “At the old gym, we had some records posted for different wrestlers and the different awards we had won,” Mr. Rojek described. “I felt like that was a really proud tradition we had at the school.” He noted that showcasing wrestling achievements in a public location of the school was a good way for young students to get inspired to do the same.
The wrestling team’s dedication to the sport was also shown outside of the wrestling matches. At YA, a talent show known as the CoffeePalooza was hosted each year. Ben and a couple of his teammates coordinated to perform a professional wrestling routine as part of the show. For their senior year, they took professional wrestling classes and rented a wrestling rink for the auditorium, so they could choreograph a wrestling show. The day of the show, the athletic director decided not to perform his role, and on short notice the wrestlers needed someone to step in to be a part of the performance. Mr. Rojek volunteered to help out, so he and the boys designed a routine. To begin the show, two boys pretended to be fighting, and Mr. Rojek stepped onto the mat with a microphone and began to reprimand the boys for their violence. One of the boys walked up to Mr. Rojek, grabbed his microphone, and then suplexed him (grabbed him around the waist from behind, carried him over backwards, and slammed him down). “The crowd went crazy, and I pretended to be injured and crawled off the mat,” Mr. Rojek exclaimed. “I’d been a no-nonsense, ‘let’s work hard,’ kind of [educator], and it ended up being one of the best things I did in my first year of teaching because people got to see another side of me.” Incorporating wrestling into different school traditions helped involve and engage students who were not even on the team.
Mr. Rojek noted that students seemed to really value the lessons they learned from the hardcore wrestling practices and matches. “When I was first teaching at YA, I taught a class where students would have to write about a personal experience, and a really common one for boys was ‘What I Learned from the Wrestling Program,’” he said. “It really produced some outstanding young men.”
By the time of the YA/GHA merger, the numbers on the wrestling team had began to dwindle. Traditions like performing at school talent shows or the competitive spirit with the basketball team toned down along with the team’s numbers. “More boys gravitated towards basketball, so the numbers [dropped] on the wrestling side,” Mr. Rojek explained. He is unsure as to what exactly caused this change, but he noted that there were some changes in “coaches and oversight.”
Thought the location of the high school moved, Mr. Rojek said he “didn’t think that was the reason” for the smaller team. “If anything, we have better facilities for wrestling here than the old building,” he added. COVID-19 definitely played a part in slowing down the rebuild of the wrestling program, as it was not a sport that ran during the initial no-contact guidelines of the pandemic.
The team today is starting to rebuild itself. The Middle School and High School practices overlap, which Mr. Rojek thinks will “help involve people in middle school, so they are dedicated to it when they get to high school.” He feels that “once we see more and more accomplishments, we will start to see more students be brought in.”
Hopefully, with the high-performing wrestling team members currently invested in rebuilding the program, the numbers will start to increase. “I think we’re heading in a good direction,” Mr. Rojek concluded. “When folks see what it looks like to be a great wrestler, that generates more interest.”