- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 15, 2017

EVANSVILLE, Ind. (AP) - Nick Lee rarely allowed his younger brother Joe to take a break during Mater Dei’s wrestling practices. He was always on his case and when they wrestled against each other, everyone sensed the intensity.

Everything is a competition in the Lee household. It’s always been that way, especially now that the three boys are all teenagers.

Matt, the youngest, is a freshman and is more like Nick in demeanor. Joe, a junior, is more aggressive, but always finds a way to keep the spirit light with his fun-loving attitude. They each embody Mater Dei’s powerhouse program in their own way.

“They’re all just a joy to be around,” assistant coach Jeremy Goebel said. “They’re easy-going, fun kids.”

As brothers, they push one another to their limits and grow tired of each other on occasion. Beneath the competitiveness is a mutual respect.



“They’re constantly holding each other accountable,” coach Greg Schaefer said.

Nick would have been a senior this year. Instead, he chose to forgo his final season and graduated early to get a head start on training for the Penn State wrestling team, arguably the best in the country.

“I miss Mater Dei a little bit, but Penn State and Mater Dei are the same in that the community is very supportive and it’s kind of an all-in attitude from everybody,” Nick said.

That leaves Joe, who also has committed to Penn State, to set an example for Matt. His role has reversed in less than a year.

“It’s interesting to see how Joe has really stepped up as a leader,” Goebel said. “He’s letting his leadership shine and coaching, he sounds a lot like Nick did last year when he’s yelling out to Matt.”

Nick won state in 2015 before finishing as the runner-up last year. Joe won last year and is undefeated at 28-0 this season heading into Saturday’s semistate at the Ford Center. Matt won his weight class at last weekend’s Castle regional and is next in line to continue the Lee family’s dominance.

They all do whatever it takes to win.

Nick really paved the way for us,” Joe said. “Back then we were just trying to be like him and that got the competitiveness out of us.”

The Lees stumbled into wrestling.

Chris Lee, their father, never wrestled but has always been passionate about sports. He had them dabble in nearly everything from football to gymnastics. Wrestling was the one that stuck for all three. Nick and Joe started nearly a decade ago and their passion hasn’t faltered.

“They started a year before me and I was like, ‘Hey, I want to do that too,’” Matt said.

They all enjoy the euphoria of having the official raise their hand after a victory. Matt likes the creative freedom because everyone can develop their own unique style.

As the youngest, it can be frustrating when Nick and Joe offer guidance because he wants to figure things out himself like they did. At least until he realizes what they’re saying is usually right.

“It’s exciting to know I can be just as good or better than them because they give me tips,” Matt said. “I understand they’re trying to help me in the end.”

There’s a line Nick constantly walks now that his only communication with his brothers is over the phone. They talk at minimum once weekly and he lends advice, but only if they ask.

“I don’t want to offer too much because they have coaches,” Nick said. “I don’t want to have too many voices on two ears, but I try to offer what advice I can. Small things, mindset things so they have the right attitude win or lose.”

There aren’t bragging rights, despite the constant one-upping. The result isn’t always the reward. That’s where experience is the most beneficial.

“It helps we’ve all been in the other one’s place,” Joe said. “It gives us an advantage having an older sibling who’s been where we are now.”

There’s a wall in the Mater Dei wrestling room that’s almost completely covered with pictures of its state champions.

They look toward the mats as if the faces from the past are watching the current team train. They serve as a constant reminder that the Wildcats are wrestling for something bigger than themselves.

Mater Dei’s tradition of excellence spans generations. There’s even a book about the program’s history. Some have gone as far to put the program in their wills.

Hundreds established the heritage, it’s simply the current wrestlers’ job to take it further.

“It’s inspiring because we’ve had a lot of state champs and a lot of good wrestlers,” Matt said. “Nick was good, Joe is good and I know I can be just as good but I have to do it step-by-step and look at what’s in front of me instead of just the end goal.”

The Wildcats have a brotherhood - quite literally in the Lee’s case - that’s bonded by winning. Not only are the Lees competing for their school, they’re defending their namesake.

Nick and Joe are household names throughout the midwest wrestling community. Matt, if he is not already, will be in the near future. Nick was the No. 1 wrestler in the country last year; Joe is working toward the same recognition.

It’s not just one who receives glory. They share it. And they’re determined to protect the name, especially for their parents, Chris and Laura.

“We don’t want to look at anything too pridefully, but I do take satisfaction that we’re able to live the way our parents raised us,” Nick said.

The Lees epitomize the program’s standards. They were raised with the mindset that hard work is necessary to achieve any goal and they’ve trained year-round to earn all their accomplishments.

That’s the Mater Dei way.

“Mater Dei is about family,” Schaefer said. “There are family values and family support, and their parents are a great example of providing opportunities for their children. They’ve spent a lot of hours in wrestling rooms and on the road traveling to help set their children up for success.”

Text messages flood Nick’s cell phone whenever Mater Dei wrestles.

Although he doesn’t use social media, others keep him in the loop. His parents text the results of his brothers’ matches as soon as they finish. His classmates still on the team do the same when they finish, too.

“I never lack for information,” Nick said with a chuckle.

He’s already anxious about potentially missing his brothers wrestle for a state championship next weekend. He hopes to find an online stream of the state finals to watch in his dorm room. If not, he’ll follow the live tracker online and await the numerous texts.

Nick is finally seeing his dream of wrestling in college come to fruition. He competed in his first tournament last weekend, the Edinboro Open, and finished third at 141 pounds as an unattached wrestler, meaning he didn’t compete for Penn State.

Leaving home early wasn’t easy. The talent level in college isn’t comparable to high school. He’s healthy, though, after missing almost all of last season with an injury, and he’s on the cusp of furthering his status as one of the best wrestlers in the country.

“I have a national championship on my mind and all that, but really I just want to be the best I can be and if I focus on that I’m going to achieve my goals,” Nick said. “I want to contribute to a Penn State team national title.”

At first, it was strange for Joe and Matt to be without their older brother around. They’ve spent their entire lives trying to keep up with whatever he did and then he left earlier than they originally anticipated.

Nick kept us on schedule and kept us in a good mindset,” Joe said.

Eventually, Joe will join Nick in State College, Pennsylvania (Matt isn’t thinking about college yet). Joe might not go the route of skipping his senior year, but the two will compete again every day like old times once they’re both Penn State wrestlers.

The wrestling room there won’t provide the same nostalgia as Mater Dei. Certainly, the brotherly rivalry will fill the void.

“We try to keep the aggression on the mats, when we’re off we just want to be brothers,” Joe said.

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Source: Evansville Courier & Press, https://bit.ly/2kvw5Ow

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Information from: Evansville Courier & Press, https://www.courierpress.com

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