Father-son duo savors final ride

Matthew Busch/The Herald
Jasper wrestling coach Rick Stenftenagel, right, stood next to son Kirk for the announcement of Jasper’s team championship in Saturday’s sectional at Huntingburg. Both Stenftenagels are in their final year with the Wildcat program — Rick after 25 years as head coach and nine as an assistant, and Kirk, a regional qualifier after surviving a serious heart condition as an infant.

Herald Sports Editor

It might be a stretch to connect the dots from Kirk Stenftenagel’s surgically repaired heart to a litter of wrestling sectional championship trophies that are stowed away at Jasper High School.

But after Kirk was fortunate to survive his first five weeks of life, spending it in a hospital tethered to tubes and machines and enduring open-heart surgery at two weeks old, it prompted a shift in his father’s way of thinking. Rick Stenftenagel has called the youngest of his three sons “a miracle baby.” From that point on, Stenftenagel viewed everything from a different lens: pushing kids to their limits is fine, but winning doesn’t have to come at all costs.

“I always look at another kid when I’m coaching him: If this was my son, and I was another coach, how would I want my son treated? I always put that in perspective,” said Rick, just the second head wrestling coach in JHS school history after Joe Rohleder led the program in its first 20 years.

“If you do the right thing, you’re going to win. If you try to put winning above everything else and try to overcoach and overguess stuff, normally you’re going to get beat. Always try to put the kid first, and that seems to have worked wonders for us.”

Both Stenftenagels are in the twilight of their careers; Rick in the penultimate season of a 34-year coaching career at JHS, and Kirk as one of 12 Wildcat wrestlers and 36 athletes overall from the four local schools who will compete in Saturday’s regionals at Bloomington South and Castle.

Kirk played a central role in the last few years of his father’s coaching longevity. Rick seems to have zero regrets sticking around for his 25th season as head coach. All through the season he’s repeated the same line: how his wrestlers, who helped Stenftenagel win his 18th sectional as a head coach last Saturday, have treated him to a “great ride.”

Seeing Kirk sturdy enough to compete at a high level has only sweetened the deal.

He was born with transposition of the great arteries, meaning fresh blood was circulating with fresh blood and used blood recycled with used blood. Just two kids are born with the condition per year in Indiana.

Kirk stayed at Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis for his first five weeks. Every night, Rick heard alarms go off, signifying a patient is likely about to die. Rick and wife Cathy, who were unable to hold Kirk for those first five weeks, squirmed. “Is is our boy? Is it somebody else’s?” Rick remembers wondering.

“We just prayed and prayed and prayed, and the praying paid off. We still pray for him,” Rick said.

Had Kirk been born 10 years earlier like oldest brother Aaron — an assistant coach on staff along with Derick, the middle brother — medical technology likely wouldn’t have been advanced enough to save his life.

“I got lucky that they could fix it. I just feel lucky, because I’ve been able to do well in my sports and nothing really holding me back too much. I feel normal, for the condition I have,” said Kirk, who’s on pace to earn 10 varsity letters — four each in wrestling and track and two in soccer.

“(Doctors) said I wouldn’t be able to play sports and I have, and I’ve done really well in them so far. I feel grateful.”

The acid test came for Kirk when doctors evaluated him on a treadmill when he was 6. “And he ran like a 16-year-old,” Rick said. “They said this guy is a little Superman.”

Kirk still ventures to Riley for yearly follow-ups, and each visit has returned a clean bill of health. He does cope with sports-induced asthma, his heart will skip a beat occasionally, and there’s a list of can’t-do activities: tackle football (he would if he could), lifting heavy weights, shooting a bow and deep-sea diving.

Wrestling was fair game, though, and from the time he was 4 or 5 years old, Kirk would linger around practice and take a ride on the shoulders of wrestlers who looked to maximize their workout with the weight of a miniature passenger in tow. To Kirk, wrestling without Dad around just wouldn’t have been right.

So when Rick began tossing around the “R” word Kirk’s sophomore year, the campaign to keep him longer began in earnest.

It was largely a one-man movement by Kirk, who’d sometimes hear conversations in practice between Rick and his assistants about retiring. He’d rush in, interrupt and say “no, you’re not.”

“He didn’t really listen to me at first, like, ”˜No, I want to get out, I’m getting old,’ and he wants to focus on other stuff,” Kirk said. “It’s like, ”˜No, you’ve got to wait till my last year.’ After so long of begging him, he was finally like, ”˜All right, I’ll just stay in it till you’re over.’”

Everyone agrees Rick has mellowed in his final seasons, and he’s comfortable ceding control. Rick still calls the shots, but son Derick and fellow assistant Sean Brescher execute most of the coaching in the wrestling room, as Brescher did at Wednesday’s practice, barking orders with grunge music as the background soundtrack.

The people — both his assistants and his wrestlers, Rick said — kept him engaged. So did the success stories. Stenftenagel recalls Todd Armstrong, who grew up in a rough background but was one of the smartest kids in his class. Stenftenagel postulated that Amstrong “was either going to be a master criminal or he was going to do something real well.” The discipline of wrestling steered Armstrong to the latter path. He’s now an assistant superintendent in the Warrick County School Corporation.

Rick gives everyone a chance, and he’s long since ditched a win-or-else approach he once held, when in some matches, he’d use promising underclassmen in place of seniors who waited their turn.

“I regret those. Ever since then, I try to use my upperclassmen,” Stenftenagel said. “The seniors, it’s their year, and you try and take care of those guys. Ninety-five to 99 percent of the time it works out the right way because we did it the right way.”

For Kirk, it’s ending the right way, too. He’s healthy and wrestling. Dad is still coaching. He doesn’t need much more than that.

“It’s been a great season,” said Kirk, who’s planning to study mechanical or electrical engineering at IUPUI, adjacent to the Riley Hospital campus. “Even though I didn’t accomplish what I wanted to in sectional and conference (placing second and third, respectively), it’s still been a really good season with the team and doing as well as we have, and everybody working so hard and just being with the teammates I have been for four years. It’s been good.”

Contact Brendan Perkins at bperkins@dcherald.com.

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