The coach sprang to his feet, pumping his fist repeatedly into the air and tasting the surreal electric joy that comes with watching hard work pay off. His teeth were casting glares off the bright gym lights, and even the crowd of happy Pendragon wrestling fans also cheering the sight might have been a bit surprised at his flash of raw emotion.
Dennis Oliver is usually fairly stoic in the corner.
One might think this scene unfolded on the sport’s biggest high school stage in the CenturyLink Center, perhaps as one of his wrestlers won a rare four-straight state titles.
Maybe it was as his own son won a state championship, or another win in a long line of them on a magical Friday night in Omaha back in 2013 when it looked like Amherst’s run of consecutive team titles was going to bust as the Pendragons caught fire and raced to a 31-point lead.
Nope. On this day, Oliver was cheering a win by 2018 graduate Juan Moreno, who was never among the 58 state placers he coached, the 31 state finalists or 22 state champions in an esteemed career that just got him into the Nebraska Scholastic Wrestling Coaches Association Hall of Fame.
Juan had simply won, and it was a match the young man would not have expected to come out on top in a few years earlier — heck, maybe even a few months earlier — after starting his wrestling career later than most.
The win, which came in dramatic come-from-behind fashion amid a tight team race at the Class D-3 district meet in Elm Creek back in February, earned Moreno a place in the state tourney and counted him among 96 state qualifiers Oliver is proud to have tutored.
“I won’t ever forget that match,” Oliver said, noting how important it was in clinching a district championship for the program in his final year at the helm.
That’s saying something, as there are hundreds of matches over the years that are full of meaning for the Shelton native and former Kearney State wrestler, who himself was a four-time national qualifer before becoming a coach at some proud programs like Gibbon, Burwell, Wood River, Minden and Harvard.
His Harvard teams, where he was from 1994 until moving to Pender in 1999, went on to make waves at state shortly after he left.
“I didn’t leave the cupboard bare there,” Oliver said.
There’s pride in that. Coaches don’t just move on and forget the kids they’ve developed. And even though he’s not going to be the head coach anymore at Pender High School, he’s not going to be far away from the action.
Oliver will continue to coach the junior high and says he’ll be close by in making a solid transition to a new era. But that won’t keep us from talking about the one that just went by.
The Pendragons were a force to be reckoned with in Class D on a stretch from 2011 to 2014 where they placed second at state three times as a team, second in the Class D state dual tournament and third place as a team.
In 2013, the squad had five state champions and broke the record for the most team points ever scored in a state tournament in Class D. Of course, as wrestling fans across the Nebraska plains know, Amherst edged the Pendragons with even more the same year.
Oh, and that record of five state champions in one season? They actually did that twice, both in 2012 and 2013.
Since Oliver’s first season in Pender in 2000, his teams placed in the top 10 at state seven times.
He coached four-time state champion Jacob Sebade, three-time state champion Mark Dunn and two-timers Jesse Eichelberger, Ben Burmester, Benny Oliver (his son) and Garrett Bowder.
Other state champions he coached include Jake Nielsen, Evan Bowder, Blake Hansen, Travis Dunn, Robbie Thomsen and Cory Sebade. Finalists he coached include Boyd Bowder, Gage Bowder and Robert Dunn.
If you saw the name “Bowder” there a few times, that might just be why the Randy and Liesa Bowder clan was named the NSWCA Wrestling Family of the Year at the 37th Annual Hall of Fame Banquet in Grand Island on June 8.
Coach Oliver said the Bowders have been an outstanding wrestling family, evident by the success. Hard work has also been a huge factor in that. And their natural ability to make something happen in a match.
“They are the best scramblers I’ve ever been around,” Oliver said, describing how they all possessed the ability to battle in awkward positions and come out on top.
While they were all good and have the state medals to show for it, Oliver said Garrett Bowder, a two-time champion and three-time finalist, was truly a Division I level prospect.
The Bowders have seven children total, including five boys who all wrestled. They include Boyd, Anita, Evan, Gage, Hannah, Garrett and Leland.
All five boys were Huskerland state champions as youths and all qualified for the state tournament.
The girls didn’t compete, but they were never far from the sport and contributed by student managing, keeping stats and running hospitality rooms during tournaments.
The Bowders have had sons competing at one level or another from 1987 until 2017, and Boyd is currently coaching at St. Paul. Five of the kids have been enlisted in the 155th Air National Guard out of Lincoln.
Dennis Oliver and his wife, Brenda, have two boys. Benny graduated in 2014 and Brady just wrapped up high school in 2018. Both were state qualifiers and medalists.