It was the summer of 2003. School was out and the Texas sun was blazing down. But while most of their friends were swimming at the lake, Greg Gogonas and Dustin Stiegemeyer were wrestling in
Gogonas' boiling-hot garage.
Gogonas was a 12-year-old who barely weighed 70 pounds. Stiegemeyer was a year younger and weighed even less, though he never backed down from his friend. Gogonas was the teacher -- the elder
statesman Stiegemeyer looked up to, followed and copied. But instead of taking it easy on his pupil, Gogonas was slamming him to the blue mat on the ground.
Their shirts were tattered from the many clashes. Their battles were fierce. But when the matches were over, they slapped hands and were best friends again.
It's been more than five years since Gogonas and Stiegemeyer last
wrestled in the garage. But those battles still resonate in their minds today. That's where the friends honed their skills. That's how they became two of the best wrestlers in Texas.
Greg Gogonas Favorites
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Now, the Bowie grapplers are considered favorites to win individual state championships this winter. They even have the team in contention for its first state title in school history.
"The garage is where it all started," Stiegemeyer says. "I didn't think I would ever be at this level. It's cool because me and Greg started out young."
Gogonas, a senior, won the state championship at 103 pounds as a freshman but is still seeking title No. 2. He finished third at state as a
sophomore in the 112-pound weight class and second as a junior at 119 pounds while compiling a 47-3 record.
Stiegemeyer, a junior, went 46-2 last year while finishing second at 103 pounds. This winter, he's competing in the 112-pound weight class.
"Both of us feel like last year we were so close, but we were just one match short of our goal," Gogonas says. "We wanted it bad and then we just fell one match short. Now we're working a lot harder to make state
champions at our weights."
To ensure they don't taste disappointment again, the best friends have gone old school this winter. They've stepped up their sparring in practice, leaving their friendship at the edge of the mat just like when they were kids in the garage.
The bruises are back. The intensity is even higher. The quality is
exponentially better. But the tattered clothes have been retired in favor of Bowie (Austin, Texas) High School gear.
"Some of the best wrestling you'll see in the state is between those two in the workout room," says Bowie coach Kevin Smith. "Sometimes it's incredible the things they do. It's attack, counter-attack, attack. And they just don't stop. Sometimes I have to step in and break it up. Neither one of them wants to lose."
After all these years of wrestling against one another, it's hard to find a clear winner and loser in their matches. Each is so accustomed to the other's style and moves that neither dominates.
Dustin Stiegemeyer Favorites
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Gogonas still comes out on top more often than not because of his extra weight and year of experience. But it's clear Stiegemeyer has closed the gap. He gets his share of takedowns, wins some matches and has gained the
ultimate compliment from his friend.
"He's probably one of the top guys I'll face this year," Gogonas says. "We're two of the top wrestlers in the state, so wrestling against each other is only getting both of us better. I still get mad when he takes me down."
That competitive fire overflows into everything they do and gets cranked up a notch when Greg's 20-year-old brother, George, is around. Pickup
football games in the street usually end with scraped knees and jammed
fingers. Games of Madden don't end in blood or torn clothes but do end with plenty of smack talk.
"I'm the Madden king," Stiegemeyer says. To which Gogonas laughs and replies, "I'm definitely the king of Madden."
"They're like brothers," says Gogonas' dad, John, who coached both boys when they were younger. "Dustin grew up with a sister, so he kind of latched onto Greg and George as brothers."
Stiegemeyer was raised in the same neighborhood as the Gogonas family and followed his unofficial older brothers everywhere. When Greg and George started riding bikes, Dustin was right next to them. Whatever music they
listened to, he did too. If they dressed a certain way, Stiegemeyer was quick to follow suit. And when they started wrestling seriously about 10 years ago, it didn't take Stiegemeyer long to pick up the sport. Of course, it took a few
beatings before he was good enough to compete against them.
"They picked on me because I was the younger one," says Stiegemeyer. "It was kind of tough. They had been in it for a year and they knew more stuff than I did so they would beat me on the mat. But they helped me with my technique and I was so thankful they were there."
With Gogonas off to wrestle at Eastern Michigan next year, this is
possibly the last season the two will wrestle together. But before the
unofficial brothers separate, they still have one more goal to achieve -- win state titles together.
"Ever since we both lost, we've been saying, 'Next year,'" says Stiegemeyer, who has yet to start thinking about what college he wants to attend. "There's nothing stopping us now. We don't want to experience that loss in the state final again. We want to be the people on the top of the podium."
Then, looking down at the fans, they can think back to when it was just the two of them in the garage. No fans, no uniforms, no medals. Just tattered shirts, bumps and bruises, and two friends battling in the hot
Brian A. Giuffra covers high school sports for ESPN RISE.