He knelt on the outer mat in full practice garb -- wrestling shoes, old tournament shirt and blue gym shorts -- below a sign that read:
"Hard work beats talent, when talent doesn't work hard."
And with that slogan as his guide, Merced wrestling coach Clayton Schneider kept his practice chugging along on Wednesday afternoon.
As many as 15 bodies flew about the room, rolling and jogging, sprinting and sliding.
The sweat was palpable, leaping off their shirts and brows and into the warm air, turning the small quarters into a sauna.
They alternated between drills and games, and when he felt like there was a lull in energy...
"Now everybody's moving," he says.
If hard work beats talent, Merced's blue-collar, faceless group should have quite the experience at today's Sac-Joaquin Section Masters Championships at Stockton Arena.
The top-7 placers advance to the CIF State Meet in Bakersfield on March 5-6.
"We're trying to win the tournament, and if we can't win, we want to advance," Schneider said. "If you don't want to win, you shouldn't be doing this.
"Everyone has their own expectations, but that's going to be our No. 1 goal."
Merced is no stranger to the state meet -- or the winner's circle at Masters.
Last season, Chris Urquizo's exciting run at a 152-pound state championship began at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, then the site of the Masters tournament.
He beat Central Catholic's T.J. Belton 3-0 in the final to become Merced's first section champion in six years.
Urquizo would command the spotlight for the next few months, traveling to state, regional and national tournaments -- winning nearly all of his matches along the way.
And the Merced High wrestling program would tag along, sharing in the celebrations and unique experiences.
"That doesn't happen often. You wish it would happen more, but it doesn't happen too often," Schneider said of Urquizo, now a defending state champion at Fresno City College.
"I think it helped some of the young guys to see that. Anytime you have success like that you hope the kids will aspire to that."
The spotlight is gone now and so is the buzz.
Without a wrestler as dynamic as Urquizo, Merced has faded back to the pack with only the scripture on the walls to push and praise it.
There isn't a single tournament champion in the room. No MVPs or Wrestler of the Meet types.
Just a bunch of worker bees, buzzing from one drill to the next.
"I like that. I love that, actually," Schneider said. "We're young and nobody knows who we are. I'd rather be the underdog, to tell you the truth.
"You don't have a big target on your back."
Instead, Merced will be big-game hunting starting with today's first-round matches.
There's five Merced wrestlers in the mix at Masters -- a point Schneider believes many have missed because of the team's 1-5 dual meet record in Central California Conference play.
Meng Xiong will open against Kennedy's Alex Trussell in the 103-pound bracket.
Alfonso Cintora (119) tangles with Andrew Naleway of Placer and Christian Eber (125) takes on Kevin Coss of Vacaville.
Cintora is relying on the lessons Urquizo taught him last season: Be aggressive, be hungry.
"He made me realize that we can be good -- that Merced could be a good team -- if we push ourselves," Cintora said.
Jovanny Gonzalez opens with the section's seventh-ranked 130-pounder, Chris Winn of Carmichael Jesuit, and heavyweight Wein-En Chen locks arms with Center's Daniel Gusev.
Gusev is ranked No. 2 in the section by The California Wrestler.
Of the five, only one has placed in the top-3 at a tournament -- Xiong, third at North Torrance.
But hard work beats talent, when talent stops working, right?
That's Merced's plan.
"That's the quote I hold onto," said Eber, pointing to the words written in pen on the whiteboard.
"You have to stay focused. Anything can happen. Anyone can slip up. Anyone can fall."
And, in turn, anyone can rise.
James Burns is managing editor/sports editor of the Sun-Star. He can be reached at email@example.com.