Pen met paper in the same place where sweat fulfilled dreams.
Five St. Johns High School seniors lined up side by side Wednesday to sign their own National Letters of Intent to accept their college wrestling scholarships, all wearing different colors of the Big Ten schools they’ll be attending next year.
In front of them sat three state team championship trophies, products of their nearly year-round training regimens. Surrounding them were family who’ve supported and transported them to meets all around the country and teammates who’ve competed with them. Behind them rested flags of their future schools, a reminder of the intense work ahead.
One by one, Ben Whitford, Payne Hayden, Jacob Schmitt, Brant Schafer and Josh Pennell each ceremonially put their names to their college commitments while in the tiny workout room where they all received their early baptism to the sport they’ve grown to love.
“This is the room we started in and what’s got us this far to where we’re going,” said Whitford, wearing his yellow University of Michigan sweatshirt. “Being able to be here and doing it here is just a great feeling.”
This unassuming, unlabeled room behind Rodger Massa’s chiropractic office has become a mid-Michigan wrestling factory over the past decade. St. Johns, which has won three straight state team titles, produced three Big Ten wrestlers a year ago. There are more future collegians coming behind this quintet as well, making the Redwings the preseason favorite to win another Division 2 team championship.
And it proved to be the perfect place for the wrestlers’ pasts and futures to collide as they begin their final high school season with more lofty expectations.
There’s not much to “The Room,” a nickname as bare bones as its contents.
It’s about 40 feet by 40 feet, lined with rubber mats padding the floors and walls. A ring of windows sits too high to peer into or out of, but fans near them blow out the hot air generated by the intense hours of hand-to-hand combat. Fluorescent bulbs add more light. There are hooks with headgear and shelves with some trophies, four chin-up bars and some posters adorning the walls.
Limiting distractions creates the perfect environment for focusing on athletic improvement. It’s where Massa’s oldest son, Taylor, trained throughout his childhood before earning four individual state championships and a scholarship to Michigan, himself. It’s also where youngest son, Logan, developed his abilities en route to a state runner-up finish at 119 pounds as a freshman last year.
Taylor Massa went on to become the 2012 Asics National High School Wrestler of the Year and now is a freshman on the Wolverines’ wrestling team. He’ll be joined next year in Ann Arbor by Whitford — who is ranked the No. 4 senior in the nation by InterMat.com — and Hayden.
“It’s too much to keep track of — many, many, many hours,” said Schmitt, already a two-time state champion who’ll attend Northwestern next fall.
Most of the St. Johns kids started working out at Massa’s room more than a decade ago and have been teammates since, spending all but about two to three weeks a year on the sport. When the Redwings are out of season, they move their training from the high school to here. It’s also a place where top prep wrestlers from around mid-Michigan and across the state now convene to practice with one another.
“I think a lot of it is just the philosophy of, ‘I’m right next to you, and I see you doing real well. And I’m doing the same thing,’ ” said Rodger Massa, who wrestled collegiately at Ferris State and has coached youth wrestlers and summer travel teams in St. Johns along with Whitford’s father, Pat. “It gives them mental confidence, let alone learning the skill and physically being able to work out with each other.”
Passing it on
Massa said former Williamston High, Michigan State standout and world champion Nick Simmons has conducted clinics and worked out there, along with a number of other high-level older wrestlers from the area.
It’s where Simmons, who is now an assistant coach at Indiana University, discovered Schafer.
“I expect to learn a lot,” Schafer said of choosing the Hoosiers. “The guy obviously knows his stuff.”
Along with Taylor Massa at Michigan, fellow 2012 St. Johns graduates Jordan Wohlfert and Travis Curley are both freshmen on MSU’s team. They’ll be joined there next year by Pennell, who opted to stay closer to home over Bucknell in Pennsylvania. Redwings alum Dan Osterman is currently a senior for the Spartans.
The relationships forged in the training facility helps fuel the wrestlers’ work on the mat and in the classroom, which Rodger Massa, in turn, says trickles down to younger teammates. When college wrestlers return, they continue to pass on similar lessons.
“Every day, every waking moment,” Hayden said, “there is some time when one of us is pushing the other.”
For the next few months, the quintet will work together for that goal of a quartet of team state titles. A year from now, most of them will be on opposite sides of the mat in college. They’ll all have “The Room” in common, waiting for them to meet up again.