BELOIT - Olympic gold medalist and Iowa State great Dan Gable famously said "once you've wrestled in life everything else is easy."
Unless you've tasted your own blood after an especially violent crossface, experienced the desperation and exasperation of needing just a point while struggling to free yourself from an opponent's ironclad grip or been on the receiving end of a perfectly-executed, bone-jarring double leg, Gable's quote may seem exaggerated. If you have stepped into the circle, kicked out of the confinement of a cradle or fought to stay off your hips while countering an armbar, Gable's quote seems understated.
West Branch coach Mike Helm knows there is legitimacy in Gable's words because he's experienced all of those things - both as student and teacher of the sport.
"Winning is just a small part of wrestling," he said. "This sport teaches life long skills. It teaches you how to handle adversity and to keep plugging away. Sure, wins are great, but I think what we've mainly done here at West Branch is instill a good work ethic, teach our kids to do the right thing and do the work. That's what we've done and success has followed. Our kids have believed in what we teach because it's been proven. This program has such a rich tradition because of the hard work that has been put into it. Kids see that. They see the tradition and the want a piece of it. They want to be part of it."
For over three decades, Helm himself has been a part of that tradition. For almost two, he's been leading it. This season was his 18th season as head coach. It was also his last. Helm, who was recently named the Ohio High School Wrestling Coaches Association Division II Coach of the Year, announced his plan to retire at the beginning this season. On Thursday, he confirmed his intention to follow through with his plans.
"I'm still going to be around, but I won't be calling the shots," He said. "I've been here for 31 years and 18 years as the head coach. I've had my time. I got a really good group of young people around me and it's time I let them take the reigns."
Helm leaves West Branch with a 169-41 dual meet record and has led the Warriors to seven NBC titles, 11 EOWL championships, five sectional crowns and a district-runnerup finish. He has coached 43 sectional champions, six district champions, 31 state qualifiers, 14 state placers and three OHSAA state champions.
"We've been pretty successful, but there is so much more to do than just me," Helm said. "I may be the one that gets the coach of the year plaques, but that a team recognition more than anything else. Every award I've ever gotten is just a reflection of our team, our coaches, our kids and our community. I've been fortunate to have good support, good kids and good assistants. One of my most important coaches is an unpaid assistant who just happens to be my wife Debbie. She did so much for us behind the seasons. All I had to worry about was wrestling. She was as much a part of it all as I was. I truly believe that."
Helm's career at West Branch began as a heavyweight wrestler in the 70's (he graduated in 1977) under then head coach Bruce Rohrer.
"I have to give him (Rohrer) credit," Helm said. "He's one of the reasons I do what I do or I guess did what I did. He was a big, big role model for me and still a part of the success we have today."
West Branch's latest success story is heavyweight Connor Sharp. Sharp became the Warriors newest state placer by winning the Division II consolation finals at OHSAA State Wrestling Tournament held at at Ohio State's Schottenstein Center on March 3. Sharp, a junior, finished third.
"Heavyweight isn't all pushing and shoving," Helm said, "A good heavyweight wrestle incorporates a lot of things that wrestlers at smaller weights do. They use their quickness and skill. You have to work outside and attack from angles. It doesn't hurt to be 6-foot-4 and 285 pounds like Connor, but he has a lot more than just size."
One thing Sharp definitely has is a pretty impressive pedigree.
"Connor comes from a wrestling family," Helm said. "He's dad placed sixth in the state at heavyweight, his uncle Seth finished third and his uncle Nathan was a two-time heavyweight state champion. He comes from good genes."
As does his brother Logan.
"We got his little brother Logan who is a sophomore," Helm said. " I guess you still call him 'little' even though he's 6-foot-2, 280 pounds. Some of the toughest matches Connor had all season was facing his brother in a wrestle-off every week to earn his spot in the starting lineup. Connor was a state qualifier last year and sometimes he didn't make the starting lineup because his brother beat him out. They pushed each other. "
Sharp earned his back-to-back state tournament appearance with a third place finish at the Alliance district. Sharp lost a 1-0 decision to Perry's Billy Miller in district semifinals before fighting his way back through the consolation bracket.
At the state meet, Sharp fell to eventual state-runnerup Travis Gusan in the championship semifinals, but again battled back in the consolation rounds to face Miller for third place. That time, Sharp prevailed, 2-1.
"Miller is a small heavyweight. At the district tournament, he wouldn't stay in contact with Connor. Connor had to chase him all over the mat. He didn't get a stalling call and eventually, he rode us out. At the state meet, he got a way from Connor and we had to chase him again, but he got called for stalling. Connor is such a mammoth that it's hard to do anything but run from him."
Next year, Sharp will be gunning for the title.
"It's obvious that he will be a championship contender next season," Helm said. "The two big ones coming back are Connor and the kid who beat him in the semifinals. Connor could win it. It just comes down to how hard he works at it and for it."
Gusan pinned Sharp in 0:47, but the quick pin fall was nothing more than bad executing on Sharp's part.
"We always have a game plan for the match," Helm said. " Good example is the Mike Brown kid who Connor faced in the quarterfinals. He was ranked No. 2 in the state. We had a plan, Connor executed it perfectly and he won the match. Against Gusan, we wanted to attack on his left side because he had a really nice sweep to his left. Connor got away from that left side and got caught. If he had attacked on the other side than Connor would have been wrestling in the finals."
If Sharp does end up wrestling for the heavyweight championship next season, it wouldn't be Helm in his corner.
" I made this decision to step down at the beginning of the season," Helm said. "Staying one more year because Connor could win a state championship wouldn't be the right thing to do. I'll still be around and hopefully he gets it done next year, but sticking around just to say I coached one more state champion wouldn't be right."
Sure, Helm will it all. He'll miss the wins. He'll miss the competition. He'll miss being there when new history is written and old tradition is reborn. But more than anything, Helm is going to miss his wrestlers.
"It's family at West Branch," he said. "We're a big family and it's hard to let go when it's family. That's the way I like to look at our program. Our kids are so close and they really, really are. Not a lot of people are willing to do and go through what these kids do and they do it together. That's what makes them close. That's what makes us family."