Robert Gonzales2

Manhattan High wrestling head coach Robert Gonzales (right) conducts a practice at MHS. After finishing just three points short of winning the Class 6A state title last season, Gonzales said the Indians are looking to rectify that during the 2019-20 campaign. MHS has medaled at the state tournament four times in the last four years.

Three points. Three.

That number was locked into Robert Gonzales’ mind all night while he was stocked up in a Days Inn in Park City on Feb. 28. The rest of his Manhattan High coaching staff shared the sentiment.

“We went back to the hotel room, and we should’ve been ecstatic,” Gonzales said. “We should’ve been jumping for joy.”

Three points were the difference between Manhattan and Derby winning first place in the Class 6A state title last season.

“Tried to look for where we should’ve picked up three points,” Gonzales said. “‘If we would’ve pinned a kid in that match, it ends differently. Look in this match, half a point.’ We are searching in our scoring books, beating each other up because we missed by three points.”

Gonzales and his staff finally relaxed a bit the following morning. Runner-up didn’t sound as good, but it still was a hefty accomplishment for a program that has finished in the top three at the state tournament four times in the past four seasons. Even the champion, Derby, hadn’t accomplished that, Gonzales said.

Time has healed that differential, but they haven’t forgotten about it in Manhattan. It’s fuel for a staff that considers the ability to coach kids the most crucial part of the process. They put the pressure on themselves.

Manhattan starts its 2019 season in Great Bend at 5 p.m. Thursday The team will have two full weeks of practice under its belt by then. Gonzales is intense during practice. His athletes will pant, crumple to the floor and show their exhaustion.

But he promises them it’s in their minds. His teams have shown that physical fortitude for years.

“We are going to have to work hard, because we only have four seniors,” Gonzales said. “We are like Joe Schartz in football: We have a small senior class. But if we coach them up and the juniors work hard and our talented sophomores come through, we can be good.”

Gonzales and Co. have talented, seasoned seniors, namely Tate Sauder, Darius Island-Jones and Daron Island-Jones. Damian Ilalio, who is coming off a football season that earned him a Centennial League Defensive Player of the Year award, returns as well.

Yes, good wrestlers already dot the roster. But Gonzales is proud of how those kids got to that point. Despite what some people say about his team, Gonzales said, the athletes don’t just show up as stars.

“People say all the time we’ve got great athletes,” Gonzales said. “What are they talking about? At the start, some of these kids can’t chew gum and walk. We have good student-athletes and we have a coaching staff that develops them into great athletes.”

How does this happen? Gonzales preaches simplicity. Rules like showing up on time, not embarrassing the school and showing sportsmanship. He feels those are clear cut, and don’t require much explanation, but remain effective.

How does he get kids to show intensity and grind through a grueling offseason?

“I guess if I were in a situation where I was like, ‘I don’t want to go, I’m tired’ then the kids would read that,” Gonzales said. “You can’t do that. They are smart. They know the coaches will push them to the limit. We currently have eight student-athletes wrestling at colleges from California to Tennessee. Those things speak.”

The Indians haven’t wrestled in a real match yet, but Gonzales said he couldn’t ask for a better start to the season. His coaching staff continues to click and his athletes are grinding.

“When we are on the wrestling mat we are aggressive and there to win,” Gonzales said. “But when we are done, we will shake the kid’s hand the same way we did before the match.”