Tipping the scales
As Austin Neal stood in the mat room at R-S Central High School, all 5-2 and 103 pounds of him, Hilltopper heavyweight wrestler Hunter "Tank" Edwards strolled into the room with a bag full of Hardee's firmly in his grasp.
For the entire season, wrestlers stress over every pound gained or lost more than the girls on America's Next Top Model. Edwards, however, doesn't shy away from calorie-packed meals.
"I like to eat...a lot," said Edwards. "That's my favorite thing. It's pretty sweet being a heavyweight. The smaller guys have to cut weight and you can just eat in front of them. It's kind of unfair to them but they could go up to heavier weight class if they wanted to."
Neal, a freshman who wrestles in the 106-pound weight class, doesn't concern himself too much with keeping the pounds off.
"If you work hard in practice then you lose a good amount of weight so it's not that hard for me," Neal said. "I can always lose the weight and I'm not that close to 106."
For Neal and Edwards, their differences extend much further than their dietary habits.
"At 106 you have kids that are moving a lot. They have to be able to attack a lot while being able to defend against others that are attacking their legs," Central head wrestling coach Rich Cox said when explaining the differences in the weight classes. "Heavyweights aren't going to be doing a lot of leg attacks. You have to be a pretty athletic heavyweight to hit the knee, come up and run through somebody with all that weight."
Even Cox had to learn the differences between coaching such different wrestlers.
"I used to coach everyone the same. When I first started I tried having heavyweights attack legs but I learned that it really isn't plausible. We need to focus on getting as many little points as we can," Cox said.
Even Edwards, with all his bulk, strength and dietary freedom, envies the little guys from time to time.
"With smaller guys I feel like it's easier for them because of their weight and a lot of the people that [Neal] faces don't have the muscle that he does," Edwards said. "Everyone I face is either jacked or just really heavy. When you have 285 pounds on top of you that's a lot of weight to move."
Cox explained that heavyweights focus more on upper-body moves while smaller weight classes have much more aggressive matches.
"With Hunter we're working on banging heads and locking bodies. We just try to focus on a point at a time," Cox said. "I want Austin to go out and attack right away. I want him on a guy's head and hitting leg attacks."
Edwards and Cox each emphasize the conditioning struggle that comes with wrestlers up to 285 pounds.
"By the end of the second round, any good heavyweight is going to be breathing hard," Edwards said.
"We emphasize conditioning for everybody. I think it's easier to out-condition heavyweights so I told Hunter how important it is even for him. I want him to go as hard as everyone else," Cox added. "Of course he isn't going to run as fast as Austin, but that's the expectation."
Edwards, better known as "Tank" around the team and the school, earned his nickname as a youngster in PeeWee football.
"I would pick out the biggest kid to hit every day even when I was a lot smaller," Edwards said. "It was fun, I still like hitting."
Neal, who is still "a lot smaller," found his niche as a wrestler in seventh grade.
"People didn't believe me when I said I wanted to wrestle. It started coming to me in my eighth grade year," Neal said.
Despte being undersized in stature, Neal doesn't feel small due in large part to his wrestling success.
"It's made me a lot more fit. It's definitely boosted my confidence and helped me know a lot more people as just a freshman," Neal lamented.
As a junior, Edwards has adopted a leadership role on this year's Hilltoppers.
"I like to joke around and I guess you could call that being a leader," Edwards said through a laugh. "I like being the guy that can take control of a situation but I think it's also important to be a guy that's easy to get along with."
"The role of leadership comes naturally to [Edwards]," Cox added. "And Austin is just a freshman who's also small. People listen to Hunter, but if Austin yelled they probably wouldn't listen to him."
As different as the two may be, Edwards understands how similar their roles really are.
"I think we play a similar role because he has to lead the team with scoring points and a lot of the time in dual matches it boils down to who has the best heavyweight," Edwards said.
Aside from it all, you'll be hard-pressed to see the two ever square off on the mats...Neal learned that lesson the hard way.
"At the beginning of the year I was just messing with him and then we actually started wrestling," Neal remembered. "Then he got two underhooks and just threw me. At that point I knew it was best to leave him alone."
Apparently this was nothing new to Edwards.
"I try to pick out the smallest guys all the time," Edwards joked.