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Monday, June 18, 2018

The Kushner Cobras wrestling team, 2018 Wittenberg National Wrestling Tournament champions.

Gold medal winner Yaakov Billinson, RKYHS senior.

Gold medal winner Jacob Elstein, RKYHS sophomore.

“I think I can, I think I can, I think I can…” Just like the childhood story of “The Little Engine That Could,” the Kushner Cobras wrestling team spent a long time climbing that daunting mountain. It was a storybook journey that took the team from last place straight to the top. Kushner, a school much smaller than the other top wrestling schools, managed to pull off the impossible: 16 Cobras defied the odds, silenced the doubters and became the nation’s number one yeshiva team. The Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School Cobras became the 2018 Wittenberg National Wrestling Tournament champions and sealed  their name in the history books of yeshiva wrestling.

The story started as just another challenging season, with many of the team’s wrestlers inexperienced and young. The program had graduated six seniors last year, resulting in many available spots. Five first-year wrestlers, six second-year wrestlers and a handful of upperclassmen would have to figure out a way to get the job done. As usual, the theme was “build the new guys as fast as possible, hoping they will represent well by the time Yeshiva Nationals arrive.”

In the early contests of the season, the team fell short and the wrestlers realized that it would not be enough to just “think I can.” Thinking only gets you so far; it’s the implementing of well-laid-out plans that increases the likelihood of getting a job done. New strategies and training methods were set in motion, but the question remained: would that be enough to overcome the other powerhouse programs whose infrastructure and number of students often seemed to leave Kushner falling just short of its goal? Would Kushner fall short again and take its fourth second-place finish in seven years? Or worse?

The 2017-18 Cobras season schedule was a minefield of brutal tournaments and matches against mostly stiff competition. At times the team stumbled and fell, yet the wrestlers always rallied and fought on, learning and growing from each loss. As the season progressed, the tournament results got better and better, and the team began to make its way toward the top of the standings at each event. This growth culminated in big tournament wins as Wittenberg approached, leaving the team feeling that it would at least represent well at Nationals.

Wittenberg finally arrived, with the theme being “ignore the scores, follow the match strategies, do your job and have fun.” With parents and supporters in attendance, the Kushner Cobras marched forward, toppling one wrestler after another. The excitement built as outcomes, overall, were better than expected. Some were tempted to check the scores, but the reminder rang out: “Ignore the team score and focus on one match at a time.” By the time the medal rounds began, at 5 p.m., it was clear that Kushner may have already clinched the tournament. Thirteen starters headed into the medal rounds; seven were in the finals, with five going for third place and one going for fifth. Never before in Kushner wrestling history were those numbers so high, and it rivaled anything that had been seen by any team before. As the lights throughout the gym turned off and the spotlight illuminated the finals mat, it began to sink in that this Kushner wrestling team was about to take its place among the elite of yeshiva wrestling. With team and individual trophies held high, the entire team took its place at the top of the mountain.

The final results: 13 national place winners. Two champions. Five second-place runners-up. Three third place, two fourth and one fifth. The Kushner Cobras scored 60 points more than the second-place team, with a final team score of 272 points.

It was now a fact: the little engine no longer just thought it could, but with hard work it did.

Athletic Director’s Note: RKYHS and the Cobras wrestling team would like to thank Coach Dave Cilio for his hard work and tireless contributions to the school, the team and this victory.