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Even after all these years, it’s tough to watch a kid’s dream end

There were multiple times as I sat matside at Saturday’s Class 2A sectional wrestling tournament when I had to remind myself “it’s just a game.”While the non-sports fans among you may think me foolish, my heart figuratively ached for the wrestlers who saw their dreams of making it to the state tournament dashed on a mat in New Hampton.I’ve covered sports for 30-plus years, and it still pains me to see young men and women in whatever sport come up short. It’s particularily painful to see the anguish on the faces of New Hampton kids, but honestly, I’ve felt bad for kids from other towns that have seen their seasons end because of the Chickasaws.You could say I’m a sentimental old fool, but I felt the same way when I was in my 20s.Yet, Saturday for some reason felt different, felt worse.I wrote about it in the “tournament story,” but for most teams, winning a sectional team title by 44 1/2 points and qualifying eight wrestlers for the district meet would be an absolutely banner day.This Chickasaw wrestling team isn’t most teams, and I can guarantee you that coach Nick Hemann and his wrestlers felt like there would be more heading to Decorah on Saturday.Two second seeds — Max Babcock and Keegan Tenge — didn’t make it out of the sectional and a state-rated wrestler, Areon Day, also won’t be heading north this upcoming weekend.It’s happened before and it will happen again. But Saturday was particularily tough on this old goat, and sometime on Sunday morning, I finally figured it out.Those three kids have been in a way a big part of my family’s life since we moved to New Hampton.I coached Max for four years of youth baseball. Keegan was one of the kids on my oldest son’s youth baseball team, which more than anything brought Joshua out of his shell. And Areon spent a lot of time at our house last summer and was my youngest son’s workout partner as the two got ready for football season.All three were agonizingly close to taking that required next step to get to Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines.Max was so close to a takedown during overtime of his semifinal match that it was almost palatable. No offense to Crestwood’s Chris Guest, but in a best-of-five series, I’d take the Chickasaw every time. And Areon saw a 5-1 lead dissipate in a 7-5 true-second match loss.If you couldn’t understand the pain on their faces Saturday afternoon, you might want to go see a cardiologist to make sure you’re heart is properly functioning.There is a silver lining for these three wrestlers and the three other Chickasaws — Drew Boeding, Max Schwickerath and Noah Fenske — who didn’t advance to the district tournament, and it is this: They’re not done wrestling.New Hampton’s sectional win means the Chickasaws will compete in the regional duals tonight, and if they win two meets, New Hampton will head to Des Moines next week to try to win its first state dual-meet title in a dozen years.I’m sure the pain will linger, though, and I feel especially bad for Tenge, Babcock and Day, all of whom were expected to advance as individuals on Saturday.It was especially excruciating to see Tenge, the long senior in the trio, on Saturday. Day gets another shot next year, and Babcock has two more years of high school wrestling ahead of him.I have written this before and I will write it again I’m sure. Life goes on.If losing a heartbreaking match at a high school sectional wrestling tournament is the worst thing that happens to these guys in life, they’re going to be just fine.But on Saturday — or even today — that probably doesn’t cut it.What high school sports are supposed to teach our kids is the value of hard work, persistence and teamwork.There are no ties in wrestling anymore. There’s a winner and there’s a loser. But what really matters in life and in wrestling is how we pick ourselves up off the mat and respond.And I know these kids well enough to bet my life savings — no matter how paltry they are — that they will come back better than ever.

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