In a room surrounded by mats damp with sweat, Sarasota Military Academy assistant wrestling coach Jason Kunow can be heard yelling, “Only 11 more practices until districts!”
Four years ago, Sarasota Military Academy didn’t even have a wrestling team.
Now in its third year of having a wrestling program, SMA has not only brought in a coaching staff (all volunteers) that can help develop wrestlers, it also has a room full of kids who are willing to learn.
“It’s worth it when you can see the boys progress,” Kunow said. “It’s worth it as long as the boys are benefiting from it and are willing to push.”
But Kunow doesn’t just talk and teach. He gets on the mat with the students to show them firsthand the proper way to execute a move.
Also in the wrestling room with Kunow is head coach Don Jones, who has more than three decades of coaching experience, Kevin Jakub, a former international wrestler and mixed martial arts fighter, and a pair of experienced MMA fighters, Robert Herrera and Andreas Danapas.
Herrera wrestled at Sarasota High School under Jones, while Danapas is expected to become a professional MMA fighter in less than a year.
SMA is a public school, but its sports programs are pay-to-play, meaning the programs don’t receive funding from the county.
Although many schools have a football team that will feed some athletes to its wrestling program, SMA doesn’t have a football team. In fact, many of the team’s athletes don’t have an extensive sports background.
Along with that, any expense associated with wrestling is either paid by the student/athlete or raised through fundraisers.
Tom Gow, who handles the team’s medical needs and fundraising efforts, also volunteers his time to the team.
“We’re a public charter school. Public in that no kids are charged to come here,” Gow said. “We receive county funding for education, but not sports. We lose about 20% of what other schools would get (through a county sports budget).”
SMA is planning on sending three wrestlers — Jake Walker, Logan Gow and Dalton Burton — to a national competition in April in Cedar Falls, Iowa, to wrestle against some of the best athletes in the country. The athletes will have to pay for the trip through fundraisers.
For a multi-day tournament, Gow said, it will cost about $1,000 per athlete.
The goal is for the trio to learn as much as they can, no matter the outcome. They are three of the top juniors on the team and will be relied on heavily next season.
“There are a lot of expectations on these kids,” Gow said. “The juniors right now are going to be the base of the team next year. They’re going to have to hold it together for the younger kids.”
Logan Gow said it’s amazing to see the growth of the program since he started.
“Wrestling is just what I do now,” he said. “It’s taken over my life since sophomore year. It’s all I think about now.”
During his first year as a wrestler last year, Logan Gow placed fifth at the regional tournament, though it wasn’t enough to move on to the state tournament. This year, he has his eyes set on placing at states.
“It’s crunch time (this time of year),” he said. “You need to work harder. If you’re feeling sick, get over it. It’s life. You just have to work through it.”
Gow, as well as third-year SMA wrestler Xavier Miller, said the coaches motivate them.
Although Danapas outweighs many of the wrestlers at 245 pounds, he’s relatively new to wrestling, so it’s helped even out the duels during practice.
“(Danapas) puts up a good fight, but with three months of experience, he doesn’t know all of the techniques that well,” Logan Gow said. “If I know a technique that he doesn’t, it helps me build my strength up. Wrestling with him over the summer, I went into the season feeling like I was throwing around a bunch of 5-year-olds.”
Miller, who has been there since the program started, is hoping the experience in the practice room will help jump him from regionals last year to states this year.
“I got knocked out last year during regionals and it added fuel to my fire,” Miller said. “I got that far last year, so I think I can make it (to states) this year. If I don’t make it, I’m going to make sure that other guy remembers who I am.”
SMA has one last regular season wrestling meet before the district tournament begins Feb. 28.
Paying their dues
Without funding from the county, SMA wrestlers have done work such as building fences to raise money for the team.
Last year, athletes and coaches turned two neighboring classrooms into a wrestling room. The entire floor is covered in a mat, while the walls are padded with mats that read “Sarasota Military Academy.”
Making a name
With the team’s short history, SMA has plaques hanging in the wrestling room that have room for achievements, such as career wins, district champions and state championships.
The plaques are bare, but assistant wrestling coach Jason Kunow said he’s hoping the walls are filled with names in the near future.