Ava Seccuro staff writer
In a room filled with hundreds of wrestlers at the CIF Masters meet, the apprehension was palpable. With high stakes, wrestling captain senior Daniel Heller had just won his ninth place match, which would earn him at spot at CIF State Wrestling meet. He had finally achieved his overarching goal in his high school wrestling career. Heller has dedicated his life to wrestling for the past four years. This year, as Heller changes the culture of the Norman wrestling program, he makes an undeniable impact on the spirit of competition and the mentality of his teammates.
This season, Heller has picked up a myriad of accolades: he took his 100th varsity win, won in his weight class in Ocean League, placed first at the CIF individuals meet, placed ninth at the CIF Masters meet and was the first wrestler at Beverly since 1976 to qualify for the state-wide meet. But his success this year did not come easily, nor did it present itself early in his wrestling career.
“Day one, I walked in, I had no idea what I was signing up for, and my first practice, I got my butt whooped by the older guys and I knew it was the place to be. So starting off day one, you’re getting tested, you have to see where you’re at versus everybody else. My freshman year, I barely made it out of league. I was an alternate for CIF. Took fourth out of four people, not very impressive,” Heller said. “My sophomore year I won league. I worked all summer. The crazy thing is, [I] went to wrestling camp that summer…and I went four wins and 15 losses, and everybody hated me. So, I just kept working cause that’s when I realized I need to get better.”
More than anyone else, head coach Ryan Faintich has appreciated Heller’s persistence and ambition.
“It’s a great ending. You look at it as a whole, as complete kind of story. He came into the room and had never wrestled before and through his hard work and his tenacity, every year kept finding a new goal and a higher level to reach,” Faintich said. “Now, it culminated to him being the first [Beverly] wrestler to win CIF since 1965 and the first wrestler from Beverly to qualify for state since 1976. I’m very proud of the job he’s done. I think he was very proud, and I’m just sad to see him go.”
Daniel’s mother, Michelle Heller, has been with Daniel every step of the way. She has been team mom every year, and has watched him grow as a wrestler and as a person. She has not only watched Daniel mature and thrive, but also seen his teammates grow.
“It’s been unbelievable to watch and experience and a fantastic journey…We’ve worked out together a lot…So it’s really cool how he’s let me be part of the process. I’ve been team mom for four years and I take the guys to practices. I’ve watched not only my son mature and grow as a teenager and a wrestler, but I’ve watched the whole team grow and it’s been super fun,” Michelle said. “It’s been fun watching everybody grow and I really enjoyed watching Daniel achieve what he set his mind to achieve. That’s the coolest thing of all. He wanted this…and watching him struggle with attaining his own dream was something remarkable.”
Daniel’s make-or-break match to go to state was, as Heller described, “crazy.” Although he was indescribably nervous, his motivation to win for his coaches and for himself was the only thing keeping him stable.
“Making state was pretty crazy. That match, I got dropped into the ninth-10th place match, where the ninth place guy goes and the 10th place guy doesn’t,” Daniel said. “[I was] absolutely horrified all day long. I can’t put it into words besides that. I was listening to classical music, walking around outside, trying to get my mind off the fact that I was in the most horrible place in high school wrestling. Before my matches, I turn off the classical music. I turn on the preparation music. I go out there and get to work with conviction knowing that I can’t lose that. I can’t lose that for myself. I can’t lose that for my coaches, my teammates, my school, everybody that’s put time into me. I can’t let any of these people down.”
Among many of Daniel’s family and friends that watched his state match, Michelle witnessed the fluctuation of emotions that Daniel and the many other wrestlers felt.
“This past weekend at state was an extremely emotional journey for all of the 540 boys and girls who were there. Wrestling is a one-on-one sport. Someone has to lose. And each wrestler goes into each match and puts their heart into it. I saw a lot of tears that weekend. A lot of tears from otherwise very strong teenagers, and what I walked away with is this understanding of these teenage boys. We often think of them as tough and unemotional, and I got to witness Daniel and tons of strangers break down into tears,” Michelle said. “It’s a transition: they’re 12th graders, they are leaving their coaches, they’re leaving a sport that takes so much heart and diligence, and it was really beautiful to see how much they care. It’s not just the joy when they win. It’s huge. [But] the pain and sorrow when they lose, it’s hard too.”
Between this season and previous season, Faintich noted that once Daniel realized that he did not accomplish his goal of making it to state last year, he made sure that he would never waste another opportunity to fulfill his dreams.
“As far as a personal journey this year, there’s ups and downs. We didn’t get to state last year and that was a goal, and we fell short. I stressed that we fell short. There were times that we had an opportunity to get it done and we didn’t get it done, didn’t go the extra mile and didn’t put the extra work in,” Faintich said. “I think Daniel realized that and realized that every opportunity is rare and you can’t let them go to waste. I’m confident, and I know he’s confident, that he can walk away from this season going knowing that he didn’t waste any of those opportunities.”
After he had finally defeated his opponent and made it to state by one place, Daniel couldn’t help but cry tears of joy. One of the most memorable moments from Daniel’s Masters match was implementing a program-wide, ‘“iconic move” that Faintich and Faintich’s coach had used at state in years past.
“There are pictures of me and my coaches just crying. I think they were crying of happiness. I was crying of relief. I caught the kid, I was up 4-3, I was on the bottom, just kind of stalling out. The kid was tearing my legs apart…I couldn’t have let him do that ‘cause I would have lost, ‘cause it was such a close match. Then I saw the opportunity open up to hit it a certain roll, which my coach hit in his State quarterfinals match, and his coach and his quarterfinal match. So, that’s an iconic move for our program,” Daniel said. “I sat there for 40 something seconds, I’m looking at the clock and I look at my coaches. They’re screaming, ‘Stay there.’ Everyone is just cheering and screaming. Then I see the clock click down and I’m like, ‘Okay, don’t cry, play it cool.’ [But] it just all came up like a wave of relief.”
One thing that has made the difference for Daniel’s success this season was the fact that he was able to separate his emotions from his matches, which improved his mental process for wrestling his way up to state.
“A lot of the matches that I lost this year were not close matches. I either was blown out or I blew someone else out. A lot of times those losses aren’t that tough. Sometimes there’s close [ones], and that’s a tough match,” Daniel said. “A lot of times I’m so caught in the moment that I know I can’t let the loss get to my head and so I just put it away and deal with it later, ‘cause if I break down the middle of the tournament, I’m not gonna be able to come back. Which is really one of the big differences that I’ve learned from last year to this year. Last year, if I lost a match, I probably wouldn’t end up coming back.”
Daniel strongly believes that the accumulation of all the effort he had exerted for the past four years has earned him his success this season.
“I think a lot of it was the cumulative work. A lot of times, you are in these positions where you have to just grind it out and get it done, and what I realized at CIF and the Masters Meet, especially, was sometimes you’re in these positions and you have the choice to either just hang on for dear life and hope it ends, or just run through, literally run through your opponent with the force of a freight train,” Daniel said. “I think a lot of what ended up winning me a lot these matches this year was realizing, ‘Okay, Daniel, it’s time to run through your opponent like a freight train,’ and I just used that burst and that ‘I need to get this done.’”
Faintich isn’t concerned for the future of this program. The team has the make-up and the wrestlers, but the one thing it will lack is Daniel’s spirit. As he’s set a foundation for the special culture that the program has now attained, he and Faintich have developed a special relationship through Daniel’s dedication.
“I don’t have favorites, but when somebody spends four years wrestling in the room and when they go to every open mat he can with you, go to camp with you, and they put in that amount of time, I think you’re obviously going to feel a connection. I think our team is great because we have so many great wrestler. And, next year, our team is really going to break all kinds of records that this school hasn’t seen,” Faintich said. “I think that as far as individuals go, Daniel Heller was incredibly special. He’s walking away with practically every single statistical mark that the school has. He’s one of the guys that helped build this team.”