Malembe Gonzales hasn’t even opened the door to his office and he’s already apologized for the smell, assuring me that in time the odor will eventually disperse.
“It takes a little time to get used to it,” Gonzales added before entering.
That inherent smell of new leather, along with a hint of the chemicals used to treat the products during its progressing, hits you the moment you step inside the room. It is small and has no windows, which only makes things a little more overwhelming on the senses.
Once a large sheet of leather is housed in Gonzales’ office, it is now in a neatly packed, rolled-up state. A box cutter and several hours later, and all that remains are leftover bits and pieces as the majority of the material has been transformed into custom straps which now rest on the various tables found inside the room.
They are hardly finished, but you can already make out what Gonzales is creating. Think championship belts along the lines of WWE or UFC.
Off to the side, Gonzales has several bags of rivets and other decorative accessories he will incorporate to spice up the belt’s appearance. All that’s missing are the metal center pieces and equally heavy side panels which are currently in a different location.
It’s a pricey arts and crafts project, one that Gonzales absorbs all the expenses for out of his own pocket. He won’t divulge what the final cost is, but does give an idea on how long it takes to produce one championship belt.
“Once I have everything ready,” said Gonzales, the Black Hills High School wrestling coach, “I can usually finish a belt a day. That’s if I don’t sleep.”
It’s the third year Gonzales has tackled the task. He will do a total of 14 belts this year – one for each weight class at the Black Hills-hosted King of the Hills wrestling tournament, which will be held on January 20.
“I am a little behind schedule this year,” Gonzales admitted, “but it’s worth it. The kids just light up when you present them with it.”
The belts, which are without question a labor of love, are just one of many examples of how dedicated Gonzales is at enhancing the Wolves’ wrestling program.
He wants people to be excited about Wolves’ wrestling
He is not alone in his efforts, however, as four seniors on this year’s team – Patrick Alvarado, Michael Westby, Christian Reese and Sergio Hernandez – are all following their coach’s lead, each possessing the desire to lay a solid foundation for the program to build on.
“This year the team is finally looking like a family,” said Westby, who along with Alvarado have wrestled under Gonzales for four years.
Alvarado and Westby were first introduced to their current coach as sixth graders. Gonzales would frequently help out with the Tumwater Middle School program.
Alvarado and Westby are now the ones lending their knowledge of the sport to the kids below them, each dedicating time to help out younger wrestlers by attending several youth practices all with the goal of seeing the Wolves’ flourish in the future.
“This year has been amazing,” Westby said. “It’s our senior year. You have to be the alpha dog and show the younger kids how it’s done. Patrick and I try to get to as many practices as we can. We love helping out and going to their meets and cheering them on.”
Last year, Black Hills featured just 11 wrestlers on its roster. That number has tripled this season with the squad capturing some impressive hardware at several prestigious tournaments along the way, including a second-place finish at the Franklin Pierce Invite.
“I feel like we do have a desire to step up and lead more with this team and set a good example,” Reese said. “In the past it hasn’t been as good as it’s been right now. We want to keep that going once we leave.”
While Alvarado and Westby were reeled in early on, Gonzales’ enthusiasm didn’t reach Reese until last year, but once it did, Reese knew it would be difficult to turn him down.
“He would find me in the halls and yell at me to get in the (wrestling) room,” Reese said. “It’s a lot of hard work, but I really enjoy it. I really feel I should have started my freshman year.”
With the Wolves’ program on the uptick the next step will be to secure one of Gonzales’ handcrafted belts at this year’s King of the Hills.
Only one Black Hills’ wrestler – T.J. Borden, who won the 285-pound division in 2016 – has been a recipient of the title.
Alvarado finished third at 160 last year, while Nolan Keesee was runner-up in the 132-pound division.
“That would be the next step,” said Gonzales about one of his wrestlers triumphing in their home tournament. “We got a good shot this year with a couple kids.”