For many Maine-Nebraska Friendship Series wrestlers, visit to Clearwater Rodeo is Pine Tree State visitors first rodeo
July 6, 2023
Almost four decades ago, two coaches - one from the east coast, the other from the land of the Cornhuskers - formed an alliance. Maine and Nebraska would become as thick as thieves. Despite the large differences between the two states, a friendship was pinned down and has lasted for years.
Lincoln Southeast wrestling coach, Mick Pierce, and Maine's, Wally LaFountain, a wrestling official from Maine, met in the 80s during a wrestling trip to Europe, according to current Maine coach Brian Cote.
Pierce and LaFountain agreed that a friendship needed to be formed, as they shouldn't have to travel across the world to form a bond. So the two wrestled with the idea of forming a yearly exchange of wrestlers from their states.
For 38 years, minus the Covid-19 pandemic, Maine and Nebraska have exchanged wrestlers for a few short weeks. Athletes have been able to see another way of living.
Nebraska wrestlers had the pleasure of meeting the Maine coach who started it all during the 2022 series.
Cote took over as the leader of Maine's program in 2021. He stated that he has a unique system for selecting his athletes that get to travel, just as Nebraska has its own system.
"I look at the large tournaments in the area, the regional champions, state qualifiers, records and weight classes. However, I also determine if someone is worthy of joining the trip by looking at their character, their leadership qualities, and I call and talk to the coaches of the boys to see the kind of person that they are," Cote said.
In addition to Cote, fellow coach, James blood, accompanies the team and leads the pack of 19 boys learning about the Nebraska way of life.
Nebraska wrestlers from the area include Rylee Hammer, Norfolk; Maverick Heine, Hartington Cedar Catholic; Jair Santiago, Norfolk Catholic; Ashton Kuchar, Battle Creek; Mason Nitz, Elkhorn Valley; Robbie Fischer, Crofton/Bloomfield; Calvin Empkey, Norfolk; Braden Guenther, Crofton/Bloomfield and Brenden Bolling, Pierce.
The high-school aged students have spent many years acquiring their skills and apply them at each dual they attend. The Maine wrestlers and coaching staff have noticed that the skills and routines they have perfected vary from those of the Nebraska boys.
Cote stated, "Nebraska has more tough, gritty wrestling. They focus on wrist rolls and tight waists. I've noticed they have more of a collegiate style of wrestling. Our boys have more of a "funk" and are leg riders, tight waisters and folk-style individuals. Some of the teenagers have a collegiate style, but not the same as the Nebraska students."
Cotes believes the style difference is largely, in part, due to seasonal differences between the coastal and Midwest states. Maine has a fairly short traditional season, as the wrestling program is not very large.
However, Nebraska has a longer competitive season. The teenagers on the Maine team most likely spend more time practicing in the off-season, but it is still not the same as the Cornhuskers.
Although the program is based on wrestling, one goal of the series is to incorporate elements of uniqueness and bonding.
Before each match, the teenagers will share a new shirt representing their individual wrestling program with their opponents. This tradition allows for a sense of unity from all schools and gives a memento for years to come. Wrestlers are able to have a sense of happiness throughout their journey and remember all the experiences from the trip. No matter where they end up in life, they will always have something to reminisce about, according to Cote.
When asked if the Maine travelers had a favorite city, the answer was a resounding no.
"I honestly can't say I have a favorite. I have loved meeting new people and exploring every city. Each stop has its own memories and experiences and no one can beat the other. Although I went on this trip the last time Maine came to Nebraska, I still don't believe I have a favorite. Although, I will say that the capitol in Lincoln has been a close favorite," Coates stated.
The coach did remark that if you asked the boys, they would have a different take. Like most high-school boys, they would choose their favorite spot based on the food they ate, experiences shared, such as the Niobrara River zip line and, of course, the people they meet along the way.
When traveling among host sites, such as Pierce, Conestoga, and Grand Island, host families provide housing for the young athletes and coaches. Not only does this make the trip cost efficient, but it allows for the teenagers to make bonds with fellow competitors, TeamMates and community members. They are able to gain a sense of unity without being a resident and learn what it is like to live a new way of life.
To cap off the 2023 journey, the wrestling team came to Clearwater's Big Rodeo, June 25. According to Cote, Pierce wrestling coach Tyler Legate secured tickets for the teams to help them share in the excitement of their very first Nebraska rodeo, and for most, their very first rodeo.
Cote said he has attended a rodeo before, but he is 1 of the Pine Tree State's 21 travelers who has had the experience.
The amazement contributed to the shock of the rodeo, especially during rough stock events.
While Maine has "amazing lobster and seafood," the rodeo industry is lacking, with the closest event being in New Hampshire. According to Cote, this amazement resulted in complete silence during the bull riding and ring of fear events.
The Maine visitors also traveled to Monowi, took a dip in the Niobrara River and went fishing.
Have the wrestlers and coaching staff tried a Runza? Although it could be called a delicacy in the corniest state in the nation, the travelers did not have quite the same taste.
While visiting the Lincoln area for a duel at Conestoga Public Schools, staff members thought that a Runza-sized hole in Maine's wrestlers' hearts needed to be addressed and took coaches Cote and blood, and a few wrestlers, to grab a treat. Although Cotes loved the food and has since eaten it three times, he described the boys as having a 20/80 reaction, with the smaller amount liking the Nebraska beef and cabbage delicacy.
After competing in several duels, traveling across Nebraska and trying new foods, the Maine teenagers are ready to return home.
Cote emphasized the experiences made will leave a lasting impact on the lives of the teens and all the citizens they met along the way.