By GERRY deSIMAS, JR.
Connecticut Wrestling Online
WINSTED, Feb. 24, 2001 - The day of wrestling was over. The trophies had been awarded and gym that had been pulsing with the excitement of the Berkshire League Tournament finals a few minutes earlier was much quieter.
Gilbert coach Jim Rollins stood and beamed. In 17 years as the head coach for the Yellowjackets, he has coached them to several tournament championships -- 10 in the last decade.
Yet, the satisfaction of finishing second in the 2001 Berkshire League Tournament was intoxicating even though Nonnewaug had avenged a regular season defeat, beating Gilbert by 19 points to win the tournament.
But winning was an afterthought. "Sometimes we came up a little bit short but most of the time, we achieved a level above our ability," he said with pride.
The way his team performed was inspiring to him. The way wrestlers from Gilbert and Northwestern Regional worked together made him proud. And the emotion and support of the fans touched him, too.
Not only does Rollins coach Gilbert but he has been coaching and training wrestlers from Northwestern for the last four seasons along with several years since 1989.
"We were a community of coaches, fans, teammates and even parents," he said. "We were united and we achieved together. I have had more fun today than I've had in wrestling for the last five years.
"I honestly don't think the first place trophy would have made it any better," he said.
* * *
Rollins' friends have been smiling in the last few weeks at the success of the long-time Gilbert coach. It had been a while since he had been so pleased after a match.
From 1986-96, Rollins led Gilbert to 11 straight winning seasons. In 1996, his Gilbert team was second in Class S. Three other times, the Yellowjackets finished third.
His passion, drive and coaching skill are well-known among the small fraternity of Class S wrestling coaches and fans and beyond. His' teams are always well-prepared with hard-nosed wrestlers.
"His kids always get vastly better as the season goes on," Terryville coach Peter Veleas said. "He gets the most out of his kids."
He coached eight Class S champions and nine finalists. Forty-three wrestlers have won 57 Berkshire League titles under him. Rollins earned his 200th career victory in January and has a career record of 206-131-4.
But the last few years have been tiring. The lack of commitment, immaturity and the argumentative nature of a few wrestlers and some parents were draining the fun of coaching for Rollins.
Gilbert had not had a winning season since 1996 and he questioned his coaching and his techniques. After spending 21 years behind the bench and the last quarter century in the Gilbert wrestling program, was it time to move on?
Last spring, he decided it was time to go. He was in tears at the team's annual wrestling banquet.
A few months later, he ran into the parent of a former wrestler, who thanked him for being a positive influence in her son's life.
"When a parent goes out of their way to let you know you've made a contribution, it makes you think," Rollins said. "I like to win but it's about a lot more than that today."
And as the wrestling season approached, he found he could not walk away.
"It's not about sports itself but offering an activity for a kid to learn how to learn," he said. "Sports teams are a community. You learn to work together or it doesn't function. Coaching is my contribution in that area.
"Everyone has to give something. It's a significant contribution to the community, which is essential today."
* * *
When the season began in late November, Rollins didn't have the same spring in his step that he had when he began coaching. He hurt his knee just before official practice was to begin and a long-term relationship he was in came to an end.
His knee and his heart have been mending slowly and this year's team a mix of Gilbert wrestlers with four Northwestern grapplers sprinkled in have helped. Assistant coach Jerry Trieshmann returned after a one-year absence, bringing a smile and a laugh each day to practice. As Gilbert's varsity girls soccer coach, Trieshmann also brought the experience of dealing with parents and the ever-growing reams of paperwork that is part of a head coach's position in today's world.
"I had two goals. Make Jim smile every day and keep some of the other distractions away so he can do what he does best coach," Trieshmann said.
For Rollins, coaching became fun again.
"The best part of this season is that everyone is getting along and are helping each other," Rollins said. "For the first time in four years, this is a bonded group and that has been the highlight for me. The numbers are up and we have a good group of freshmen. I see potential in each one (on the team) and I can't remember the last time I saw that.
"The camaraderie keeps you coming back."
* * *
A former Gilbert School wrestler himself, Rollins spent four years as an assistant coach to program founder Charles Youmans before taking over in 1985.
"After the first year, I said I would stay until we won a state championship. We came close a few times," he said.
In 1990, 1991 and 1995, the Yellowjackets finished third in Class S but they never really threatened to win the title. In 1995, Gilbert set a school record with 19 wins as they finished 19-3. This year, Gilbert was 9-13-1 and 4-0 in the Berkshire League.
"It's hard for me to give up on something until I achieve it," he said.
But winning isn't the ultimate driver anymore. It's important but so is the growth of his wrestlers.
Rollins was proud Saturday after the State Open championships. Devin Schibi (160), the first wrestler in school history to win a pair of Class S titles, finished third and earned the school's first-ever bid to the New England Tournament, this weekend in New Hampshire.
Rollins was just as proud of senior Ryan Wheeler, who lost both of his matches in the tournament. This year, Wheeler, who weights about 156 pounds wrestled at 171 pounds. He could have tried for the 152 pound weight class but the team needed him at 171.
"He reached the limit of his ability and exceeded it," Rollins said.