Kinnick’s Elijah Gamble, left, tries to get the upper hand on Yokota’s Devin Day during Saturday’s 135-pound final in the Nile C. Kinnick Invitational “Beast of the Far East” Wrestling Tournament at Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan. Gamble decisioned Day 2-0.

Kinnick’s Elijah Gamble, left, tries to get the upper hand on Yokota’s Devin Day during Saturday’s 135-pound final in the Nile C. Kinnick Invitational “Beast of the Far East” Wrestling Tournament at Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan. Gamble decisioned Day 2-0. (Dave Ornauer / S&S)

On the surface, Elijah Gamble’s 2008-09 wrestling season in a Nile C. Kinnick uniform seems decidedly pedestrian: Besides one invitational tournament title, there was a string of third- and fourth-place finishes, including a fourth in last February’s Far East Tournament.

But two things have inspired Gamble, a 5-foot-1 sophomore and a Red Devils team leader, to far greater things — Kinnick’s 45-14 Far East dual-meet final loss to Kadena of Okinawa, and the work ethic of Gamble’s 135-pound predecessor, Cameron Butts, who went unbeaten and unscored on last season.

“Something you want to strive to be,” Gamble said. “I really want to be that. That’s what I want to be. Not getting scored on [was] something I looked up to. Wrestling him in practice, getting schooled (by Butts) … it’s something you cherish, but you don’t want it to happen again the next year.”

Gamble spoke at Saturday’s Kinnick Invitational “Beast of the Far East” Tournament. He became the third straight Devil to win the 135-pound class, beating Far East gold medalist Devin Day of Yokota in the final.

It was Gamble’s third gold medal in as many tournaments this season, after finishing — you guessed it — fourth in last year’s “Beast.”

“You’re thinking, ‘I was in fourth place last year and that’s not what I want,’ ” he said. “I want to be first. And being focused and putting everything into it is something I need to keep going with.”

By no means, though, does Gamble want to do anything but create an act of his own, rather than filling a set of outsized shoes.

“Trying to replace Cameron Butts is something you can’t do,” Gamble said. “I could try, but I’d keep running up escalators to nowhere. I want to be a good wrestler for Kinnick. I want to have an impact and do good for this team.”

So far, so much better than where Kinnick left off last season, in the ashes of the second-most lopsided Far East dual-meet final in tournament history.

“It’s something I always think about,” said Gamble, who got pinned in the 129-pound bout by Taehan Paschal of Kadena in 3 minutes, 46 seconds. “I really don’t want that to happen.”

Thus, Gamble says he has doubled and tripled his effort in the room and tried to set the example for his teammates.

“We just need to work harder than everybody else,” Gamble said, adding that Kadena and its Okinawa island rival Kubasaki, with a combined 26 team titles, will forever be the yardstick.

“I know the Okinawa teams, they’re gunning. Kadena wants it. Every year, it’s going to be one of those teams,” Gamble said.

One way to overcome that, Gamble said, is to remind every member of the team at every practice just how difficult the sport is.

“Every practice needs to be a miserable practice, just so we can get better,” Gamble. “We need to work harder at every practice. We need to motivate each other. You’re only as good as your team. And on the mat, it should just be like second nature. It should all be instinctive.”

Another of Kinnick’s hard-working “little giants,” defending Far East gold medalist Marcus Boehler, has rung up a record that belies his own diminutive size, equaling Gamble’s ledger thus far.

“I don’t like losing,” said Boehler, all of 5-foot-2 who’s wrestling at 108 pounds this season. Like Gamble, Boehler took the dual-meet loss to Kadena to heart; he got pinned by Kadena’s Nick Breier in 3:17 in the dual-meet final.

“Last year, we got blown out. We need to step it up this year. We want to work hard. We want to win Far East this year,” Boehler said.

For his part, first-year Red Devils coach Gary Wilson feels blessed to have the two on his team — for their ability but also their leadership and wisdom.

“Elijah has been the hardest worker in practice,” Wilson said. “Marcus has been the most consistent.”

They, along with assistant coaches Kevin Donegan, Wes Gaines and former Far East champions Joey Wood and Dustin Haney, give Wilson what he calls a “wealth of assets. They’ve been key so far. They’ve been a wealth of assistance,” Wilson said.

Gamble’s athleticism “is amazing,” Wood said. “He’s very determined, and he wants to be good at the sport.”

Any form of motivation, negative or positive, seems to light fires under Boehler, Wood said. “He hates to lose. I think that’s one of his best things. If he’s not doing something, I can tell him something negative and he thrives off of that.”

But can all of that translate into team gold, something no Kinnick team has accomplished since 2001? The Red Devils won their first two in-season tournament titles, but finished third at “Beast” with 53 points, 17 behind champion Kadena.

“I don’t want to have any doubt in my team,” Gamble said. “If we pull it together, if we stick together as a team, as a unit, as a family, we can make something happen.”

“We have some good wrestlers,” Wood said. “We have a chance, yes.”

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Dave Ornauer has been employed by or assigned to Stars and Stripes Pacific almost continuously since March 5, 1981. He covers interservice and high school sports at DODEA-Pacific schools and manages the Pacific Storm Tracker.

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