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Coaches go to mat for James NCCC finds ways to help its star

SANBORN -- He was the fifth-ranked wrestler in the nation at 157 pounds entering the 2008 National Junior College Athletic Association championships.

Justin James felt poised to make a run at a championship for Niagara County Community College, only he stumbled through a good portion of his matches.

While he earned All-American status, his eighth-place finish and 4-3 record at the tournament was disappointing.

Back at NCCC, James and coach Eric Knuutila reviewed tape of his matches to learn where he went wrong.

The verdict -- the mat.

Pepsi is a sponsor of the NJCAA Wrestling Championships, so some of the mats for the competition included the "Pepsi wave" imprinted over the customary two circles.

And those extra lines on the mat severely confused James.

James, a sophomore from Spencerport, was diagnosed in high school with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and Tourette syndrome.

It makes for some quirky activity along with some odd behavior on the wrestling mat.

"I had trouble with the lines on the Pepsi mat," James said. "I have this thing with lines where I need to constantly step over the line. I don't know why I do it. I don't even know that I'm doing it, but we think that with the extra lines from the Pepsi logo, it confused my mind."

James, who began this season ranked second at 165, will try again for a national championship at the NJCAA Wrestling Championships, which run through Saturday in Rochester, Minn.

This year, the Trailblazers are bringing along medical notes to ask that James not be assigned the Pepsi mat until the championship round -- when all matches are on the sponsored mat.

"If we get to the championship round and we have to take second in the nation? Well, that wouldn't be so bad," Knuutila said.

The Trailblazers sent 10 wrestlers to the national tournament. Joining James are Jared Lemke (Alden, 125), John Taylor (Lockport, 197), Dan Audy (Clarence, 133), Derrick Adams (Medina, 141), Shay Shive (149), Mike Gresh (157), Don Schildhauer (Niagara-Wheatfield, 174), Richard Dawson (Medina, 184) and Dave Christopher (Maryvale, 285).

The road to a national championship and All-American status got off to a rocky start for James and Knuutila.

Knuutila, a 36-year coaching veteran, couldn't understand what was wrong with James when he arrived on campus. James wasn't just unorthodox in his style; the more the coaches tried to correct him, the worse he got.

With both parties frustrated, Knuutila finally learned a valuable and missing piece of information -- James had OCD and Tourette's. These made processing information and controlling some movements and quirks nearly impossible.

"His parents wanted to mainstream him, so they didn't tell anyone about his condition," Knuutila said. "I chewed them out a bit for not telling me. Then I got an education. I had to learn about his condition and figure out ways to help him succeed."

So how do the conditions manifest themselves?

"In really stupid ways," James said. "It takes me a lot longer to do some things. I always rub my lip and touch my face and I don't even know I'm doing it. I have all these little rituals. The big one is with the lines at the mat, but there are other things. Like I have to get exactly six drinks from the water fountain before my match."

The biggest concerns in the wrestling ring come from officials who think James is trying to stall. He sometimes rubs his lips until they bleed, and the official will think James is attempting to draw blood and stall. That's when the Trailblazers coaching staff explains his condition to avoid the penalty.
They've adjusted their strategy for James, teaching him to attack when he steps over the line -- a tactic that has worked well as about 75 to 80 percent of wins come from a takedown.

The staff also had him increase his weight class this year -- from 157 to 165 -- to make it easier for him to take his medicine without worrying about making weight.

"Justin is one of the most unique people I've had the privilege of coaching," Knuutila said. "We've had to make adjustments as a coaching staff. We have to sit silent during a match, and believe me that's hard to do. His teammates will cheer him on, but he can't be getting instructions from too many voices. It confuses him. The only voice he can recognize and respond to during a match is his dad's, so sometimes we'll tell him things to yell."

James hopes to catch the eye of a four-year school with a good showing at nationals. A Disabilities Studies major, he wants to continue in that field to work with others who face physical and mental challenges. But first come the nationals.

"Last year, I think I had a big head going into nationals because I was ranked fifth," James said. "This year, I'm nervous but excited, too. I lost my last match [in the finals of the Region III championship] and I think that's good. It motivates me."

e-mail: amoritz@buffnews.com

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