Beaten, bruised and with a mountain to climb, senior Noah Perkins stepped onto the mat once again.
Facing him was another formidable foe, an imposing figure from Warrington ranked fifth in the state.
Remembering the advice of head coach James LeMay, Perkins kept his head down, facing the floor of the State wrestling finals arena.
“It’s nothing like you’ve seen before,” Perkins later said. “You’re just one little body out on the floor, staring up, looking at a lot of other bodies watching you. It’s a lot of exposure; it’s nerve-racking. You don’t want to look up and get distracted by all the people looking at you.”
As the match began, Perkins couldn’t let wrestling instinct take over completely. Bothered by a left shoulder tweak suffered in his previous match, a loss to the eventual State champ from Smithville, Perkins would have to take on a strategy not too familiar to him: defensive.
Helping him in this approach were the echoing words of another coach, one who was with Perkins in spirit. Irshaad Ameer, a Webster assistant coach who had suddenly passed away a few weeks earlier, had known well of Perkins’ aggressive tendency to use his strength to his advantage every chance he got.
“He would tell me not to lift trucks, which just kind of means wrestle, don’t muscle.” Perkins said. The message was clear: don’t do too much.
Coach Ameer’s guiding words stuck with Perkins, as he upset Warrington with one arm then went on to place fifth at State for the Statesmen.
To earn his memorable triumph, Perkins had to battle with several opponents, including his own shoulder.
“Coach would always tell anybody who was injured that you either have an injury or an owie,” senior Marcell Jones said. “An owie is something that hurts, but you can fight through it. Noah had an owie and knew he could fight through it, and Coach told him he could fight through it.”
And fight through it he did. Winning his first two matches would have automatically qualified him for the semifinal stage of the double-elimination tournament, but after starting with a victory, the defeat to Smithville proved to be a setback. He would have to win two straight matches to have the chance to place.
Facing elimination, Perkins took down Warrington then pinned Hannibal in the second period to clinch a medal of placement.
“I didn’t feel it as much until my adrenaline was pumping, and then I sat down before my Warrington match and Hannibal, and it was painful,” Perkins said. “I had to keep rubbing it out, and it was just tightening up. I woke up the next morning and it was like having a bunch of needles in my shoulder. Luckily, we kind of strategized around it.”
Unable to gain an advantage effectively by shooting on opponents, Perkins instead had to defend shots and counter.
“I would defend the shot and circle around him, take his shot then reverse him and put him on the mat,” Perkins said.
With a clean record at the day next day’s consolation semifinals, he narrowly lost to Harrisonville, sending him to the fifth place game for a rematch with Pacific, who he had lost to in a semifinal match at Districts. This time, Perkins prevailed, completing his dramatic run to Missouri’s top five podium.
It was the culmination of an emotional season for the Statesmen, who lost a member of their family the weekend before senior night, with the playoffs just around the corner. Ameer was an assistant coach who often worked directly with wrestlers, teaching and them moves and getting on the mat to practice with them.
On Saturday Jan. 21, the same weekend the Statesmen were wrestling in the Fort Zumwalt South Tournament, Ameer unexpectedly passed away. The team didn’t receive the news until that Monday.
“Coach LeMay sat us all down in the wrestling room; nobody knew what was going on. He kind of waited until all the wrestlers, managers and everybody got in there, and he told us that Coach Ameer had passed away,” Perkins said. “It was a complete culture shock. Nobody expected this; from what we could say, he was perfectly healthy.”
“It hit pretty hard, because that Friday I was doing extra work with him after practice,” Jones said. “That’s the first thing that came to my head when I heard about it, that I was just in here with him Friday.”
With senior night and the District tournament near, Webster had to stay focused and carry on with practice.
“He was a true, honest man. He always gave you his true opinion whether you liked it or not, because it was for the best for you,” Perkins said. “That whole next week, that next day of practice, it wasn’t easy for anybody. It was like somebody was missing in the room and you could tell.”
Senior night, while already marking an emotional end to Perkins’ and Jones’ careers at Roberts Gym, took on a new meaning in wake of Ameer’s passing. The team held a ceremony for the late coach as his wrestling shoes were placed out on the mat and a moment of silence was held.
“We ended up beating two pretty tough teams, not only just by points, but almost by every kid almost pinning their opponent,” Perkins said. “The whole night all we wanted to do was make him proud. He gave us his all, so my senior night we went out there and gave him our all.”
Perkins and Jones would both go on to qualify and compete at State. Jones was eliminated early but stuck around and helped as Perkins climbed the ladder to fifth place.
“When I first walked into the room my sophomore year, Coach Ameer told me I was going to be a State champ, and that was always something that was on my mind,” Jones said. “I wasn’t a State champ, but just getting there was pretty special.”
After being eliminated, Jones himself became a coach to Perkins for the rest of the way.
“I got to coach Noah, wrestle with Noah, and show him stuff that I know he was going to see,” Jones said. “It’s been me and him always, going hard at practice, the two of us. Even though I was eliminated, it was still good to see him go far. It was fun to watch.”
“I wanted to do it for my teammates because without them I wouldn’t have been able to go to State at all,” Perkins said. “I wanted to make Coach LeMay proud as a senior, and I wanted to make Coach Ameer proud, to show them both what they put into this year and that they were both really good coaches. Coach Ameer stayed in my mind for the whole way.”
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