It’s 9:30 a.m. the day after Christmas and there’s a problem in the Catholic High wrestling room. None of the six wrestlers in coach Tommy Prochaska’s office can figure out how to plug in the scale to check their weights.
Without looking up from a laptop, Prochaska instructs one to place the plug in the wall.
“Some things never change,” Prochaska says, acerbically marveling at the electrical breakthrough.
The team wrestles in the Deep South Bayou Duals in two days. Its holiday practice layoff — and the family meals consumed — creates a nervous tension as each starter steps on the scale.
“How is it?” assistant coach Ben DiPalma asks one.
“Fine,” the wrestler responds quietly, writing a number he doesn’t want to divulge beside his name on the team’s weight chart.
Prochaska howls in laughter –— a lighthearted reaction that’s become status quo for a mellower, pragmatic man now in his 18th season as head coach and who seeks his 300th dual meet victory at the massive, two-day tournament that begins Tuesday at the Baton Rouge River Center. The Bears were 4-1 on the first day of the Duals on Monday, leaving Prochaska one win shy of 300.
DiPalma wrestled in Prochaska’s first dual meet victory. An attorney, DiPalma returned to his alma mater and was elevated to Prochaska’s top assistant this season. The two were practice partners in DiPalma’s high school days — the days Prochaska still wrestled with the team daily and was notoriously vocal throughout practices and tournaments.
“Part of why I was fiery, it was about me,” Prochaska said. “Showing what I could do. Then I realized, it’s not.”
Running practice alongside DiPalma is Brian Parenton, a 2006 Catholic graduate who joined Prochaska’s staff just after graduation. Other alumni trickle in and out, following the path set by their head coach, who joined former coach Kenny Spellman’s staff when he graduated in 1992.
Prochaska’s older brothers wrestled, endearing him to the sport in high school, where he finished as a state runner-up in 1992 at 152 pounds. He wrestled 140 all season, but a miscommunication within the team forced Prochaska — who couldn’t even reach 150 pounds — to wrestle up.
Catholic placed five in the finals in 1992. Prochaska was the only one to lose, by fall against Mike Hanemann, whom some in Louisiana consider the best Jesuit wrestler of all time.
“He fought like a true warrior,” said Spellman, who is now alumni director at Brother Martin. “He’s a competitor. The whole senior year thing, it was difficult for him, instead of saying ‘No I don’t want to do this’ he took it head on, he wanted to meet all challenges. That’s what he’s instilled in his teams.”
The youngest of five children, Prochaska planned to take over the engineering company his father founded. Instead he joined Spellman’s staff. Spellman said it was always his goal to foster an environment that encourages alumni to give back. Prochaska maintains that environment.
“What matters to Tommy is seeing people come back,” former assistant Garret DuBois said. “Seeing people still keeping up with the program, seeing people still appreciate what’s going on.”
Now a secret service agent, DuBois graduated in 2001. He coached until 2010, missing the 2008 season while on deployment to Iraq with the Marine Corps. Catholic won its first state title that season. Prochaska kept DuBois informed on a satellite phone.
DuBois made a trip back to Baton Rouge this summer. Parents and former wrestlers threw a small party to reconnect, one Prochaska couldn’t attend.
“On the outside, it was 100 percent for me, but truthfully, the way I looked at it, we were all there for Tommy,” DuBois said. “Because of what Tommy instilled in us as a coach and a program as far as not only being a competitive athlete but a good person at that.”
A milestone like 300 dual-match wins is seemingly about the coach, but Prochaska focuses on his wrestlers.
One wrestler asks Prochaska how long practice would last. He drove his family’s only car and he has to get home in time for his mother to drive to work. The two work out a schedule.
“Each kid’s different, and the things they go through in their life are different,” Prochaska said. “Kids have so many things going on nowadays and it’s out there. You try to make wrestling an escape from those issues. There’s a satisfaction of dealing with kids. A lot of other occupations, you don’t see that.”