De Smet wrestlers prove they're 'Spartan tough'

Lisa Johnston |

The stability of a simple wrestling stance has helped put the De Smet Jesuit High School wrestling program on solid footing.

When Colby Robinson became head coach three years ago, he inherited only a handful of wrestlers and needed to recruit new ones quickly. So, at freshmen orientation, he asked students to get into a wrestling stance, then told them that each one could be a wrestler.

"That sparked an interest," he said. "I walked the halls and invited the kids. I don't think there was one kid in the school I didn't ask."

Robinson's hustle has paid off. Just a few weeks ago, De Smet won its Spartan Holiday Tournament for only the second time in its 35-year existence, topping respected programs such as Francis Howell and Hazelwood Central. In their latest match, the Spartans defeated St. John Vianney 39-26 to improve to 3-3 for the season.

Under Robinson's tutelage, the Spartans are trending toward their previous achievements.

"The tradition of wrestling is here, and that's one of the things that intrigued me in coming here," Robinson said, noting that De Smet has finished in the top three in the state a couple times in the past and under former coach Mike O'Brien had about 85 wrestlers in the program at one time.

Robinson came to De Smet after being the head assistant to the men's and women's wrestling programs at Missouri Baptist University and before that was an assistant coach at a high school in Oklahoma.

As a high school student in Oklahoma, Robinson went undefeated as a senior en route to the state championship in the 140-pound weight class in 2005 and was a two-time All-American in both Greco and Freestyle. At the University of Central Oklahoma, Robinson was a two-time national qualifier, an All-American and a member of the NCAA National Championship team. In addition, the university gave him the "Outstanding College Athlete" award.

That first year at De Smet Jesuit, he eventually started with 31 wrestlers but ended with 17; there were a few injuries and guys left the team as losses piled up. Many first-year wrestlers were in the varsity lineup, so it was as tough assignment for them. But some took advantage of the opportunity and now are better for it.

Last year, the team ended with 27 wrestlers and now have the same number. Some wrestle year-round and travel to tournaments throughout the country.

This year, "I look down my lineup and see experience," Robinson said. "All of our starters have wrestled before except for one. We have some strong weights (classifications)."

He also credits assistant Anton Prader, who has been with him since the beginning.

The coaches concern themselves with the athlete in ways other than performance, with a team grade-point average of 3.75.

"One of the statements we make is to be 'Spartan tough,'" Robinson said. "We talk to our boys about what it means to be 'Spartan tough,' not only on the wrestling mat but in the classroom and in their spiritual life. We form them as young men because we understand that wrestling is just an avenue to use the talents God has given them and be successful with that."

Wrestlers must come into the wrestling room mentally, physically, spiritually and emotionally prepared, Robinson said.

Vincent Coppola, a junior and a captain of the team, hadn't wrestled before coming to De Smet, but he was familiar with the sport. His brother, Dominic, wrestled at Priory.

The first year "was definitely harder than I thought it was going to be," Coppola said. "But I kept on seeing improvement."

In wrestling, more than any other sport he'd played, he saw a direct relationship between hard work in preparation and his performance in matches. Although it's an individual sport in that way, it's also a team sport, one he has enjoyed.

"I bonded with my team," Coppola said. "You work so hard with them every day. They're family and brothers -- you have a connection and bond that you can't get anywhere else."

He wrestles outside of school, and this summer was an All-American at the AAU Disney Duals, where he was 8-3 wrestling opponents from across the country.

He's 17-4 this season, but he's more than just a wrestler; he's also a saxophone player in the school band. A parishioner at Monica in Creve Coeur, he echoed Robinson about using God-given talents.

"I'm going to work as hard as I can to be the best wrestler I can. And that's one way to glorify Him," Coppola said.

Another junior and captain on the team, Jared Glore of Queen of All Saints Parish, played football from fifth through eighth grades, but dropped it because he hadn't grown as big as some others. At Coppola's urging, he joined the wrestling program with an open mind and ended up liking it.

"I like the personal side of it and the challenge," said Glore, who won the 132-pound class at the Spartan tournament and is 10-4 on the year. "It's no doubt the hardest sport to play in high school. Every day you're put up against a new challenge. It's mental toughness, too -- never giving up."

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