DUMONT, N.J. — Nicholas Chalarca spent most days as a Dumont High School freshman in detention.
It's not what his parents envisioned for him when they moved to the U.S. seven years ago from Colombia.
The 15-year-old cleaned his act up earlier this year, and he says he owes it all to the Huskies' first-year coach Mike Rooney, who has been emphasizing the importance of teamwork in a largely individual sport.
"I would love to get better at wrestling," Chalarca said before practice on Monday. "And I don't want to let my team down."
Rooney took over for former coach Ken Maclever, who retired after seven seasons with Dumont.
The team is 2-11 this season, but Rooney pays little mind to the numbers. He just wants to see improvement.
"I didn't want to change their whole culture," he said. "I wanted to give it a drive and a focus, and let the chips fall where they may."
Rooney knew he was dealing with a delicate situation. He had to find a way to build his athletes up without breaking them down. The first step was changing the way his athletes saw the sport. He wanted to create a sense of unity. A sense of passion. A work ethic.
While it took several weeks for the team to adjust to Rooney’s stricter style – he checked grades and made sure they were doing their homework – Chalarca says it's all worth it.
“He's a coach you can talk to," Chalarca said.
Senior Mike Vietri agreed. Vietri, who is closing in on the school record for victories, had success under MacIever. Rooney, however, has gotten through to the team in a different way.
"Everything we do has a purpose," Vietri said. "The way he sets practice up and organizes it makes it easy for everyone to understand."
It took several weeks for the team to learn to trust their new coach, some said. But eventually, they started buying into what he had to teach.
He explained why each point counts toward the team's success and the importance of bonus points and pins. They all stack up, they all matter, Rooney said.
Then he moved on to other "little things" — mat strategy, for example. Rooney has trained his athletes to become more aware of what's occurring during the match and not rely on "old school" moves.
Rooney says he is already seeing improvements.
"We started the season just getting beat up," said the coach, also a special education teacher in Ridgewood. "Every week that we compete we're getting better. We're seeing freshmen and sophomores on the varsity mat.
"We're competing and staying in matches where weeks ago, we wouldn't be even close to where we are today."
Wrestling has become about working through a six-minute match with a plan, "not just going out there and throwing a few moves together," said Rooney, who wrestled for New Milford High School and Wagner College.
For Chalarca, who Rooney says is the team's most improved athlete, it's become an opportunity.
One he can't afford to lose.
"When you wrestle, you let pressure out," Chalarca said. "You feel free."
Rooney is hoping to send five athletes to the NJSIAA wrestling championships March 3-5 in Atlantic City.
He says he purposely pits his team against some of the toughest in the state. It's all part of the plan.
"To get better as a team," he said. "Wrestling teams who we know we are better than doesn't get us better, or our individuals better."