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Are the Devils due?

Posted Sunday, February 14, 2010 by Paul COSTANZO

Maybe George Hamblin has calmed in the last four years.

Hamblin, who co-coaches the Richmond wrestling team with Brandon Day, slightly reclined in his office chair Monday afternoon just minutes after putting his No. 2 ranked Blue Devils through a long, rigorous practice just days before the Division 3 team district, which they won easily.

"I felt a tremendous amount of pressure as a coach in 2006," Hamblin said. "I really did, because I knew that would be the first group that graduated without a ring, and it was eating me up inside -- I got an ulcer from it.

"I couldn't figure it out -- Montrose was so tough, and Corunna and Dundee -- it physically made me sick. It really did, because I wanted it so bad for those kids."

The Blue Devils won a state title that year, ensuring that every senior class since 2000 has been a part of at least one state championship at Richmond. Now, the class of 2010 is in the same boat, having gotten as close as runner-up as freshmen in 2007.

But Hamblin isn't getting any ulcers as his favorite time of year -- "the playoffs" -- begin, and it's not for a lack of love for this year's senior class, which has gone from unheralded to vital in four years.

Maybe it's because he's four years wiser. Maybe it's because his team has already shown it can beat its stiffest competition -- Dundee. Or maybe it's too early, as the Devils will wrestled Wednesday in the team regional at Montrose, and the state finals in Battle Creek aren't until Feb. 26 and 27.

"I haven't felt that stress or pressure, and I know our opponent is every bit as good (as the teams in 2006)," Hamblin said. "Not yet, anyways."

The best Blue Devils?

Nearly three hours before Hamblin sat in his office chair, he was officiating challenge matches. It's a common sight in wrestling rooms around the country, as it's tough for politics to get in the way of a starting lineup when one wrestler can outright prove he's better than his teammate in a one-on-one battle.

But these challenge matches weren't for the starting lineup, they were to double enter at Saturday's individual district.

The four wrestlers taking part in those matches had a combined record of 132-19. In many tournaments across the state, they would have been semifinal or finals matches, but in the Richmond wrestling room, they're for the second spot in the lineup.

"Our varsity 'B' team would probably go undefeated in some leagues," said junior 140-pounder Brian Henke, who entered Saturday's district with a perfect record.

Said senior 135-pounder Preston Treend: "We're just a hard-working, blue collar team. We just out-work people. We don't have big, flashy stars like other teams do, we just have guys that will out-work you."

Richmond may be the deepest team in the state, regardless of division. In fact, at one point, the Blue Devils rose to the No. 2 in the Power 15 rankings. They're currently No. 5, but an argument could be made that they and Dundee are the state's two best teams, regardless of division.

There's a thought this team could go on to be the best Hamblin and Day have had. The Blue Devils' seniors, however, are split on whether this team is better than the 2006-07 team that lost to Dundee in the state finals when they were freshmen.

"I think (this team is better)," said senior 160-pounder Roger Crump who was a state runner-up last year. "My freshman year, they were really good. But I think (we're better)."

Said senior 112-pounder Dominic Cattera: "I couldn't say (this is the best team). Over the years, there's no best team. We had a good team my freshman year, I know that for sure. We're well developed every year, and it's just different every year."

Strong adversary

Where this team ranks among the litany of great Blue Devils teams won't even be discussed, however, unless they can win it all. And like in 2007, it's Dundee that looks to be the main obstacle to accomplishing that.

The two split their meetings this year, with Dundee winning the second time, 31-16 at the Super Duals. That gave Dundee the inside track to the top seed at the state finals, but it might have been the best thing to happen to Richmond.

"I felt better coming home from Bay City after we lost to them than I did coming home from Rochester Adams after we beat them," Treend said. "At Rochester Adams, we got a couple of close matches. After Bay City we saw that I can hang with (Joe) Rendina, and (Richmond junior Justin) Russo can beat (Chris) Rau. We can have a kid like Eric Boyd fight off his back against (Justin) Heiserman.

"We feel real good about it now."

The loss puts the Blue Devils back into the underdog role they relish. It was something they were far from midway through the season when they were leaving highly-ranked teams in their wake.

The Blue Devils have beaten Dundee (No. 1 in Division 3), Swan Valley twice (No. 3 in Division 3), Lowell (No. 1 overall), Allegan (No. 2 in Division 2), Greenville (No. 3 in Division 2), Stevensville Lakeshore (No. 4 in Division 2) and Oxford (No. 5 in Division 1), among others.

Their four losses on the season came to Dundee, Lowell, Oxford and St. Johns (No. 1 in Division 2). Day felt those losses helped refocus the team, not only on Dundee, but the matches they'll have to go through to get to Battle Creek.

"When we were ranked No. 1 in the state I was worried about (the kids looking too far ahead)," Day said. "Because we were knocking off Dundee, we were knocking off Lowell, we were knocking off Greenville. There was a period in there where we were training hard but kind of relaxed. The kids were like, 'man, we're good.'

"I think that hurt us in the (second) dual meet against Dundee. And if we had the mentality that we're going to walk through Montrose or walk through Capac (at the team regional Wednesday at Montrose), that will hurt us. Those guys -- Tim Gross and Jason Klink (at Capac) and Eric Moon (at Montrose), they're good coaches and they're going to have their kids ready."

The team seems to realize that, too. As Russo and Treend both said of keeping their focus on the matches directly in front of them: "We have to."

Super prepared

If the losses helped prepare the Blue Devils for the run to the finals, the entire season helped them prepare for the finals

is no team the Blue Devils will be in awe of in Battle Creek because they've already seen the absolute best the state has to offer. And most all of them have been on the mat in Battle Creek as a part of last year's team, which lost in the quarterfinals to Dundee.

Senior 119-pounder Josh Rivard had two matches as a freshman at the state finals, while Treend had one. Rivard nearly pulled off a massive upset against Dundee's Josh White in the finals, which would have given Richmond the state title.

"That experience just helps tremendously," Rivard said. "That first time that I went, I had no clue what was going on or what to expect. Now, being there twice, I know we've got a schedule, we've got to do what we have to do and get it done."

Hamblin and Day are also prepared, but they're always prepared. A day doesn't go by during the year where one of the two Richmond coaches is doing something to better prepare for the state finals. For Hamblin, often it's figuring out the best lineups possible to win a state championship.

"You can't wait until you make it to put it all together," Hamblin said. "You can make plans and say, 'we've got to do all these different things so if it happens and we make it, then everything -- boom -- will be a process and be in order.'

"You never know what's going to happen in a wrestling match, until you see a weigh-in sheet in your hand and that referee flips that coin, you don't know what's going to happen. The chess part of that game is what melts my butter. And Brandon's a pretty good chess player these days, too."

But even if Hamblin puts together the best chess game of his life, his wrestlers still need to come through on the mat.

Successful seniors

They'll definitely have the motivation to come through. The seniors are dead set on not becoming the first class since 1999 to leave the school without a state championship.
"It's what we've been working toward since seventh grade," Rivard said.

And the underclassmen aren't about to let them be.

"Everybody's trying to work hard for the seniors," Russo said. "Get them a ring."

It also would spare their coach any possible stress-related ailments for at least three more years.

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