Devin Long is 2-38 in his past two seasons wrestling for Park of Cottage Grove High School, but his coaches only have glowing reviews.

Sometimes just stepping on the mat is cause for celebration.

Long has been legally blind since birth, due to scar tissue on his optic nerve. He is completely blind in his right eye and has 20/200 vision in his left, meaning anything more than 6 feet away is blurry. That hasn’t kept the junior from wrestling, though. He’s starting at 152 pounds for the Wolfpack this season.

“When he does get close to a win or gets a win, everyone’s there for him and cheering him on,” Park coach Jim LaBrosse said. “He doesn’t get pinned very often. That’s inspirational for me as a coach to show the other kids you might not have all the technical ability and the strength and the muscle, but he works hard enough to keep us in the game.”

Long said his coach’s comment “means a lot.” He started wrestling in kindergarten when his father, a former wrestler, prodded him to try it. He played soccer for a year and some flag football until middle school, but wrestling is the one that has stuck.

“It’s been one of the sports that he’s capable of doing,” Long’s mother, Angela, said. “He’s not able to see a ball.”

When wrestling an opponent, Long must be in constant contact to make it a fair match. If he and his opponent aren’t touching each other, the referee steps in and gets them to reset.

Sometimes staying locked with an opponent requires them to extend their arms to keep grappling. But amid a swarm of dueling pairs at the Park wrestling room, Long is nearly indistinguishable.

“Once you’re into it, it’s really not that much of an advantage, it’s just actual natural wrestling,” LaBrosse said. “It’s a little different for the opponent at first, and then you just adapt and continue to wrestle.”

Long has to go by feel to determine when an opponent is making a move and what he is trying to do. Similarly in practice, he often feels out a new move to learn it.

“When I’m teaching a move to a wrestler you can show it visually, but with Devin every now and then you have to check in and physically put his head in places and make sure he feels the position,” said assistant coach Andy Spraetz, who doubles as Long’s math teacher. “But he picks it up very well.”

Long’s first victory as a varsity starter was last Feb. 6 when he pinned a Burnsville opponent at 145 pounds. Cottage Grove senior Zach Wills said the crowd went crazy afterward; some team members shed tears.

“We feel it a little more with every loss or every win,” Wills said. “When he wins, it’s awesome.”

Long moved up a weight class this year. He has one victory this season against East Ridge and has simple goals for the rest of the year.

“Just keep improving and get better and win more matches,” Long said.

He is a hard worker dedicated to his team. When Long had to miss practice because of the flu a few weeks ago, he sent Spraetz an e-mail apologizing. No matter the circumstance, Long keeps getting back on the mat.

“It’s not an easy thing to do in this sport when you’re outmatched, and he’s outmatched most of the time,’’ LaBrosse said, “but he just continues to fight and battle and not quit, and that’s so big in this sport.”

 

Ben Gotz is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.