BRADENTON — The wrestlers circle each other, sizing each other up before locking arms.
Hard rock music shoots through the air.
“Make my way back home where I learn to fly high,” the Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl screams through the stereo speakers.
Manatee’s wrestling room is where Hurricanes grapplers come to fly every summer.
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State champions and medalists are listed on the far wall of the room, and it’s a tally that grows longer each year.
Wanna know why?
Stop by Manatee High one day, and one of the guys who is readily giving up his free time will be happy to give you an answer.
“That’s when a lot of guys make their biggest jump, and a lot of guys make their biggest improvement,” said Stephen Cotton, who qualified for the state tournament as a junior last season. “I think it’s the most important time. A lot of coaches will tell you, you don’t get better during the season — you only get better offseason.”
Looking for credence? Look no further than the Hurricanes — winners of 13 straight county titles and four straight district titles, and fresh off two runner-up finishes in Class 2A over the past three years. Manatee has crowned three individual state champions over the past two years, including Alex Doran, who in 2008 became the first Manatee freshman to win a state wrestling title.
The common thread running through such success: The seeds were all planted in the summer. That’s when the Hurricanes spend four days a week lifting weights and working on technique — when they aren’t attending clinics and tournaments in spots such as Clearwater and Orlando.
“You get a lot of individual stuff done. You can concentrate on certain areas just on that kid, what he needs to work on,” said Manatee wrestling coach Andy Gugliemini. “You can put in time just for that person on particular goals rather than what the whole team is working on during the season.
“We do a lot of hard work in the season, but that’s just getting ready for the matches. All the technique, that’s done in the summertime and in the fall.”
After watching Doran and Isaac Riley struggle to get out of the down position during pivotal matches last year at state — Doran fell in the finals, Riley in the semifinals — Gugliemini geared this summer toward getting out when on the bottom.
“We obviously saw that, ‘Hey, maybe we’re lacking on bottom a little bit,’” Gugliemini said. “It’s no secret — the hard work has to be there. If the kids work hard and they show up here, they’ll get better.”
The time to get better is now. The prep wrestling seasons starts in November. The district tournament, which kicks off wrestling’s postseason, gets under way in January.
That’s not a wide window to squeeze in 25 matches, much less devote a plethora of attention to each and every wrestler on the roster. Individuals do get to address some specific needs each winter — but the real work is done when nobody is watching.
Two days a week are spent in the wrestling room, where the wrestlers partner up. Gugliemini walks around the room, frequenting each duo, spouting words of advice.
Two days are spent in the weight room. And even more time is spent working with David Mason, Manatee’s assistant coach, breaking down film of each wrestler’s matches and working on what they need to do better.
Cotton knows this stuff works. A wrestler since his sophomore season, Cotton got to see the fruits of offseason labor last February, when he found himself in The Lakeland Center competing in his first state tournament.
“The coaches always told me, ‘Steve, you’re good — you’ve just got to be the only one to realize it,’” he said. “Now that we’re doing all of this stuff, I kind of realized, ‘I am a decent wrestler.’ It’s all this work and time that we’re putting in, that’s what got me there.”
Travis Fulk, who will be entering his junior season, is already a two-time state qualifier. His next quest is to win a state medal, awarded to the top six wrestlers in each weight class.
“My goal last year was to place at state, and I came up short,” said Fulk, whose older brother, Andrew, won a state title in 2008. “That really pushed me to go harder ... and go to more practices like this.”
Not all the work is done in Manatee’s wrestling room, located above the high school’s gymnasium. The Hurricanes set their sights on a number of different tournaments — Gugliemini said some guys get in as many as 50 matches in a summer — while wrestlers such as Cotton and Travis Fulk go to camps.
Then there are the games of ultimate frisbee, which usually pits the Hurricanes against their coaches and Manatee wrestlers of the past.
“It teaches you to get along with your other teammates,” Travis Fulk said, “and cooperate.”
The results weren’t pretty at first.
“They put a whipping on us,” Cotton said.
But the more they played, the more the Hurricanes came together as a team. They bonded.
“As the weeks went by, we started to communicate,” Travis Fulk said. “And we got better.”
That’s what the summer is all about — getting better.
“There’s a saying — ‘Summer wrestlers make winter champions,’” Gugliemini said. “And it’s without a doubt the most true thing in our sport.”