#MondayMatness: Merrillville is more than about creating championships
By STEVE KRAH
Merrillville High School has enjoyed many championships in David Maldonadoâ€™s 15 years as head wrestling coach.
Since that first season in 2002-03, the Pirates have appeared in the IHSAA Team State Finals three times (2006, 2007 and 2008) and won 12 sectionals, seven regionals and four semistates as a team.
Merrillville has had three top-three places for the Coaches Cup (team score at individual state tournament) on Maldonadoâ€™s watch with a third in 2005, second in 2006 and third in 2007.
There have been nine individual state title-takers â€” junior Wesley English at 145 in 2005, senior Javier Salas at 119 in 2006, senior Dexter Latimore at heavyweight in 2006, senior Jamal Lawrence at 145 in 2007, sophomore Bobby Stevenson at 170 in 2013, junior Jacob Covaciu at 145 in 2015, junior Shawn Streck at heavyweight in 2015, senior Jacob Covaciu at 160 in 2016 and senior Shawn Streck at heavyweight in 2016.
Latimore (heavyweight) and Lawrence (145) were senior national champions in 2006 and 2007, respectively.
Streck (Purdue) and Covaciu (Wisconsin) moved on the college wrestling.
The number of state qualifiers during Maldonadoâ€™s time at Merrillville is 68.
Including his time at Noll, Maldonado went into the 2016-17 season with a dual-meet record of 301-86, including 261-46 with the Pirates.
But thatâ€™s not the only way to define success for Maldonado, himself a state champion at 130 as a junior in 1993 and state runner-up at 135 as a senior in 1994 at East Chicago Central.
David Maldonado, a member of the Indiana High School Wrestling Coaches Association Hall of Fame as an individual (along with brother Billy) and as part of the famed Maldonado family (six of Davidâ€™s uncles and several cousins, sons and nephews have been or are wrestlers), gets as much satisfaction for the relationships built and life lessons taught as the crisply-executed headlocks and underhooks.
For the Merrillville coaching staff, which also features Gene Bierman, Bobby Joe Maldonado, Paul Maldonado, Tim Maldonado, Joe Atria and Tom Kelly, wrestling does not only build character, it reveals it.
â€œWe work every match to get better,â€ Maldonado said. â€œThatâ€™s all the matters. As long as we do that, everything else will take care of itself. The medals, awards stand, all that stuff takes care of itself.
â€œFor some kids, it happens sooner. For some kids, it happens later.â€
Years ago, Maldonado got into the habit of addressing each of his wrestlers immediately after their match.
It could be a high-five, a word of encouragement or a constructive criticism. He wants the wrestler â€” and the wrestlerâ€™s parents â€” to know that he cares.
A son to parents born in Mexico who teaches Spanish at Merrillville, Maldonado also builds these relationships in the classroom.
â€œWeâ€™re all in this together,â€ Maldonado said. â€œLetâ€™s communicate. Some coaches and teachers are afraid to call home and talk to parents. Iâ€™m not.â€
Maldonado, who was also a folkstyle senior nationals champion as a high schooler and then placed third twice and second once in the Big 12 Conference while grappling for Iowa State University and placing second at two more freestyle nationals, takes time every week to talk with parents.
Itâ€™s a lesson he learned from his coach at Iowa State â€” Bobby Douglas, a former NCAA champion and Olympian.
â€œThose little things that coaches do to help,â€ Maldonado said. â€œMore than anything else, you need to build that relationship with kids. I always feel like we had a successful season because of those relationships and getting better.
â€œItâ€™s about being better at everything â€” a better athlete, a better wrestler, a better person.â€
Maldonado knows that teenagers can see right through you if you are not genuine. But show that genuine caring and by seasonâ€™s end, theyâ€™ll be willing to run through a wall for you.
But the relationships start long high school for many wrestlers. Maldonado is there at kids wrestling club practices and meets and knows them long before they put on a purple singlet for MHS.
Maldonado also tries to enjoy the ride and wants those around him to do the same.
He knows that wrestling season can be a grind and itâ€™s easy to get caught up in the heat of the moment.
â€œWe need to just be grateful for having the opportunity and cherish it no matter how it turns out,â€ Maldonado said. â€œAt the end of the year, thereâ€™s only going to be one happy kid per weight class or one happy coach.
â€œAt the end of the day, youâ€™ve still got to be able to look at yourself in the mirror.â€