ALBANY — The Darton wrestling team would gather for prayer before every practice last season, turning the voluntary devotion into a cornerstone of the team.
When the Cavs bow their heads today, each wrestler will be sharing the same pain and asking for the same miracle.
Today is the first practice since a trio of Darton wrestlers were stricken by heat-related illnesses last week, and as two Cavs still remain hospitalized, head coach James Hicks said his team is ready to resume their workouts, starting with that prayer before they even hit the mats.
“We prayed last year, and we will be doing that for the guys when we meet (today),” Hicks said. “Our guys are anxious to get back to work. They have been asking me every day when we are going to be back to practice. They are feeling the loss of their teammates and want them back, and we are going to continue to support the families and pray for our guys and hope to get them back soon.”
Sophomore Ben Richards remains in critical but stable condition in Shands Hospital at the University of Florida in Gainesville, while freshman Alex Washington, who is at Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital, was upgraded to fair condition Tuesday. The third Cav to suffer a heat-related illness was freshman Jaden Smith, who was released Friday from Phoebe.
While Richards, a 197-pounder from Tampa, Fla., is reportedly showing signs of liver failure, Washington has been steadily improving the last few days and was even in “good spirits” Monday night as he watched an NFL game with Hicks.
All three wrestlers suffered their illnesses early last week when the team began preseason practice. Washington fell ill Tuesday during the first day of practice. On Wednesday, Richards and Smith collapsed during a five-mile run outside.
Conditioning outside in the Georgia heat is something Hicks has decided against as the team resumes practice.
“(Today) we will be inside,” he said. “We will be inside for the rest of the week, and when we do go outside, we will go out at 6 a.m. No more afternoons just to be extra, extra precautious.”
Hicks took over the Darton program last summer and was an assistant coach at Campbellsville University in Kentucky for five years before moving to Albany, and he says he has never experienced heat-related illnesses to this extent. And while the team hasn’t been conditioning since practices were temporarily halted Thursday, Hicks has been reinforcing the importance of hydration and nutrition during team meetings.
“Last week, my assistant coach (Karl Reed) and I were at the hospital most of the time and didn’t see the rest of the team very much, but this week we have been meeting with them and making sure they have proper time to get educated about hydration,” Hicks said. “We talked about it in the past, and I want to take some time to talk about it and pound it into their heads.”
Hicks said none of his wrestlers have been reluctant to resume practices.
“I have had a couple of guys asking me when we plan on starting up again, and I haven’t encountered anybody who has been hesitant,” he said. “They all seem ready to go and anxious to start back up.”
But when they do step on the mat today, prayers for Richards and Washington will be on everybody’s mind.
“It’s been an emotional rollercoaster this week dealing with the guys being in the hospital,” Hicks said. “You get good news and then you get bad news. It’s been an emotional rollercoaster for everybody.”