A few former wrestlers in the Brusly area have learned that wrestling does not necessarily end when they finish high school.
Two families of wrestlers – one that graduated from Brusly High School, the other from Catholic-Baton Rouge – now apply their love of the mat sport from another perspective.
Mark, Wayne and Alan Prejean all won state titles at BHS in the 1980s. All three decided they couldn’t completely abandon a sport they loved.
The same applies to Austin and Landon Becnel, two brothers from Brusly who recently finished their varsity mat careers at CHS.
For Alan Prejean, the transition from wrestler to referee required some adjustment time.
“The biggest challenge was to not get excited during the match,” said Allen, a 1988 graduate who won state titles in ’87 and ’88. “When you’re officiating, you learn to be more of a spectator because you have to maintain the rules, control the safety of the kids and keep order in the match.”
Alan’s personal experience with officials prompted him to don the striped shirt.
“I was in the finals in 1987 and had a bad situation with a ref that almost cost me the championship,” he said.
Wayne and Mark followed in his footsteps in later years. Mark joined Allen four years ago and Wayne entered the fold as a referee a year ago.
Mark said that he enjoyed wrestling enough in high school that he decided to give something back.
“It was all about the enjoyment,” said Mark, a 1988 graduate and two-time state champ. “I loved it when I was participating and it was great to get back to what I enjoyed in high school.”
He said he finds the sport challenging both from the eyes of a wrestler and an official, but it’s sometimes a tougher mental challenge as a referee.
“You’re making sure both sides are fair and the match is running smoothly,” he said. “As a ref, you have to be thinking on your feet about the action happening in front of you. Plus, you have to be hyper-focused and block out all distractions, be it fans or coaches.”
The wrestling bug bit Wayne when he attended meets for his nephew Dylan, now a junior on the 2014 BHS squad.
He realized during those meets how much he missed the mat action. The return also made him realize how much things have changed.
“It’s a little tougher than I thought because the rules have changed since I graduated 30 years ago, and you have to be thick-skinned to be an official in this sport, just as it’s the case in any sport,” he said.
Austin and Landon found their way into officiating not long after they finished high school. Both saw it as a way to stay involved and earn a little extra money.
The work in officiating helped Austin develop a new found respect for the referees who so often endure grief from coaches and grapplers.
“It’s a lot of pressure because you have to know the rules and you have to be confident with your decision,” Austin said. “It’s also pretty tiring because you go at it all day up and down, so your legs hurt a lot at the end of the day.”
It also gives Austin and his brother – both students at LSU – a chance to earn decent money over the course of a single day.
“We get paid pretty well for this, depending on the tournament,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with earning a little extra money doing something you really enjoy.”
Landon considers wrestling a perfect part-time gig.
“It’s a hobby of mine, so to watch wrestling and get paid for it is even better,” he said. “I’m tired at the end of the day, but I go home with money at the end of the day – not a bad incentive.”
Officiating gave Landon a better view of some things referees notice that others do not.
“You definitely notice a lot of cheap shots - a hell of a lot more from the official’s point of view,” he said. “Wrestling gets very personal when it gets out of hand, and you have to look carefully to see when they’re trying to get that cheap shot.”
Coaches often seem preferential to younger referees because of their ability to move more quickly. However, many agree that the older referees maintain the edge in experience.
“Some coaches say they prefer the younger ones because it’s fresh in their minds, but the biggest issue is having a referee who can make the right calls and scope out those cheap shots,” Landon said. “The ideal referee has the experience of older ones and the stamina of a younger one. That’s hard to find because a lot of those older ex-wrestlers have been away from those weight limits a long time and eat all they want.”
From the father’s point of view, it’s not a bad deal, either.
“It’s a lot less stressful for a father, but I’m proud of them for giving something back to the sport they love,” Brian Becnel said. “It helps out the sport because if they don’t have referees, the sport can’t continue.”
For Wayne, a two-time state champ who graduated in 1983, it’s a connection between those who laid the groundwork for the BHS mat program and those who now make it one of the most successful in the state.
“They do a really good job here at Brusly, and you see how dominant they are at state,” he said. “It’s something I’m very proud of because I was one of those there when it started in 1978. It’s nice to see where this program has gone.”
Brusly wrestling coach Jimmy Bible said he encourages his wrestlers to consider officiating as a means to stay involved in the sport.
The extra money isn’t bad, and it keeps a steady influx of new officials in the sport.
"I encourage them all I can,” Bible said. “It’s good money, keeps them on the mat, they like to compete and be involved. Plus, for us to get better as a sport and get better referees out there, you need good young blood coming in as refs.”