Neal Mason's third season with the Conejo Valley Wrestling Club was getting underway and he was on the mat at Westlake High, slowly rolling his neck, first to the right, then to the left.
As he stretched back to the right, a massive figure standing in the gym doorway caught his eye. Mason's eyes, along with the eyes of every other wrestler in the gym that March evening, followed the man as he sauntered through the maze of kneepads and headgear scattered on the mat.
The thickly muscled visitor seemed to be looking for something--or somebody. He veered toward Mason and stopped in front of him, towering above the Agoura High freshman. Mason's gaze wavered for a moment before settling on the stare of the visitor, Rocky Reininger.
Their eyes locked for a moment before Reininger asked, "Do you want to be a state champion?"
"Yes," Mason said without hesitation.
"I said yes because I did want to be a state champion," Mason explained nearly 1 1/2 years later. "I really did.
"I was kind of afraid of him because he was so big and powerful. I thought, 'God, he has it all, and I hope he gives some of his knowledge to me.' "
That was Reininger's first practice as a co-coach with Tom Smith at the Conejo Valley Wrestling Club, which Smith started more than four years ago. On that night, Reininger was looking for something in the wrestlers' eyes.
"He'd look at you and he'd have the look in his eyes that he wants you to have," Mason said.
And that look?
"I can look in someone's eyes and see how bad they want it," said Reininger, an All-American wrestler at Indiana State. "It goes beyond the eye of the tiger."
Reininger and Smith have found the look in at least two of their wrestlers--Mason and Billy Hunter. Hunter, a 167-pound junior at Westlake and a native of wrestling-crazy Oklahoma, recently won his division in the National Cadet Wrestling Championships. He is the first Californian to earn the distinction.
Mason, at 132 pounds, finished eighth in the same competition, held July 1 and 2 at Central Missouri State in Warrensburg, Mo.
Hunter, who was 40-5, won the Marmonte League championship and finished fifth in the Southern Section 4-A Division as a sophomore, won all six matches in Warrensburg. He pinned his first four opponents, beat the next, 10-2, and won the final, 5-0.
"He was a meat grinder," Reininger said. "He tore those kids in half."
Mason, the Frontier League champion, was 4-2 in Warrensburg. He lost in his fourth-round match and again in his fifth-place match in the sixth round.
"Neal is gifted with a great wrestling mind and skills," Reininger said. "He's a goer. He sticks with anybody."
The National Cadet Wrestling Championships is an annual freestyle competition for 15- and 16-year-old wrestlers. The next level is the National Junior Wrestling Championships, for 17- and 18-year-olds.
Hunter and Mason qualified for the national meet in the California Freestyle Wrestling Championships in April. Hunter was second in the meet in Bakersfield and Mason placed fourth.
It is Reininger's contention that nobody knows or appreciates the ability and dedication of wrestlers, especially those who compete at the club level.
Reininger, 36, wrestled until he was 25, and Smith, 32, was an All-American at Middle Tennessee State. Smith, according to coaches and wrestlers, is one of the finest at teaching the technical aspects of the sport.
"Billy and Neal are definitely the premier athletes in the entire area, among the best in the state," Reininger said. "In Oklahoma, New Jersey or Iowa, there would be a ticker-tape parade for these kids."
Clubs like Conejo Valley's seem to be taking some of the sting away from the lack of elementary and junior high wrestling programs, however.
Larry Stonebraker of Westlake High, who has coached wrestling in the area for nearly 20 years, is a believer in club wrestling.
"The club for us has filled in some of the problem caused by no lower-level programs," he said. "It can really help give the younger kids the experience."
It no doubt has helped the development of Hunter and Mason. Hunter began as a first-grader in Sapulta, Okla. Often he and his family would drive to Norman or Stillwater to watch Oklahoma or Oklahoma State matches. Hunter had an uncle and a cousin who wrestled for Oklahoma, a wrestling powerhouse.
Hunter said he would like to return to Oklahoma or, perhaps, Iowa, to wrestle collegiately.
"He's potentially a Division I wrestler," Rio Mesa Coach Todd Stoke said. "I've seen him wrestle several times, and he's got a real good attitude. He is definitely going to be one of the best wrestlers to come out of this area."
For Hunter, 16, attitude is the key. On the mat, he has the mentality of a linebacker, which he will play for Westlake's varsity this football season.
"It's one of those sports where you have to get fired up and think you're going to kill the guy," Hunter said of wrestling. "You can't be all buddy-buddy. Your enemy is on the mat."
Mason, also 16, has wrestled for eight years, first at the Amateur Athletic Union level, then at Agoura High and the Conejo Valley Wrestling Club. There are 90 to 100 members in the club, according to Reininger.
"Neal's a little bit of a slow starter," Agoura Coach Steve Smith said. "He'll almost lull the guy into a false sense of security, but he's explosive. All of a sudden the guy's on his back."
Reininger has no doubt about where all this will lead for Mason and Hunter.
"Billy Hunter will be an NCAA champion. I'm confident," he said. "Neal Mason will be an NCAA champion."
It's all in the eyes, and in this case, the eyes have it.