InterMat Reads: To Be The Best

"In the vast frozen expanse of America's heartland burns the heart of a champion."

That's the first sentence of text on the back cover of To Be The Best, the new novel from H.L. Hertel that tells the story of Ron and Nick Castle, Midwestern brothers who dream of being high school state wrestling champs. This 191-page book, geared for readers of all ages including junior and senior high students, is now available from H.H. Castle-Mac Publishing.

Meet the author

H.L. Hertel has written for the business world -- annual reports, business cases, and other internal corporate communications. To Be The Best is his first work of fiction. But, as the Twin Cities-based writer puts it, "It's a story that has been in my mind for years. Every chance I'd get, I'd write a piece of it down. The story grew and grew. The first half of my story became To Be The Best."

H.L. Hertel
"It originally started as a screenplay. Over the last five years, I turned it into a novel."

When asked what fueled the book, Hertel responds, "It reflects how passionate I was about wrestling in high school -- the thousands, tens of thousands of hours I devoted to it."

Yes, H.L. Hertel was a wrestler. He took up the sport in junior high school, and earned a spot on the varsity team at his high school in North Dakota. Interestingly, in high school, Hertel was also on the tennis team his sophomore year, but describes wrestling as "my main sport in high school."

After high school, Hertel competed in intramural competition in college, winning an intramural title. Wrestling remains in Hertel's blood. "I have two nephews in the sport. I still go to a few duals and tournaments each year."

Why a wrestling novel?

"There's a natural drama to wrestling," says Hertel. "Weight cutting, the head-to-head competition, the dramatic end-of-match scoring, the work ethic and dedication to prosper in the sport."

"You have to work hard to prosper, but you also have to have confidence and focus."

"I think about one match in particular in my own experience, how I had failed to match up with a specific opponent in the past. For some reason, when I stepped on the mat against him for this particular match, there was no doubt in my mind that I was going to win. That's part of the drama of the sport, that it goes beyond physical ability. The mental aspects are critical to success."

"The audience that enjoys the book is beyond what I expected," the author continues. "I thought the core group of readers would be junior and high school wrestlers, but it is also resonating with and reaching adults who don't have a connection to wrestling."

"It may be like the folks who went to the movie Miracle (about the U.S. Olympic hockey team who won the gold medal at the 1980 Olympics)," says Hertel. "Probably a small percentage of them were hockey fans."

"I've had people tell me they've read the novel in two nights … People seem to be connecting with the characters."

Brothers of the mat

To Be The Best opens with a prologue, featuring the two Castle brothers, Ron and Nick, as young boys, sitting in the stands of a high school wrestling event with their dad William, once a wrestler himself. Both are caught up in the action -- both vowing to someday "be the best" and take their place on top of the victory stand like the champions they've just seen in the gym.

Here's how author H.L. Hertel describes his two main protagonists: "Ron, the older brother, is a natural wrestling superstar. Nick is a shy kid. He doesn't have the natural ability of his brother."

"Ron suffers an injury. Nick now has more pressure to be infallible like his brother."

Keeping it real for fans and non-fans alike

A number of novels have incorporated high school wrestling into their plotlines, including well-read titles such as Wrestling Sturbridge and VisionQuest.

"It never crossed my mind to compare my book to anyone else's," says the author of To Be The Best. "I've had this story in mind for quite a while."

"Many matches in the book are based on actual matches, ones I experienced on the mat or from sitting in the stands."

"I try to make things as real as possible, but not laden with wrestling terminology," according to Hertel. "Even people who don't know the sport will be able to read about a 'standing switch' and they'll understand what's happening."

Here's an example of the author's ability to deftly describe a high school match in terms anyone -- including a non-fan -- can understand:

Aggression was paying off for the wrestler in green. He managed to turn his opponent to his back and was holding him as the referee watched closely. At this point, all it would take was for red's shoulder blades to touch the mat for an instant. That would be a pin and the match would be over. After eight seconds on his back, the red wrestler was able to return to his stomach and temporary safety.

"Near fall, three points green," bellowed the ref.

William felt the familiar tug on his left hand. He glanced down at Nick, whose curiosity allowed him to briefly break his stare and whisper, "Daddy, what was that?"

Squeezing the boy's hand, William explained, loud enough for Ron to hear as well, that a 'near fall' was also known as 'back points'. It was a reward, in the form of two or three points, which was given to a wrestler who holds his opponent's back to the mat but does not succeed in pinning him.

Hertel describes how that explanatory style was put to the test: "I had test readers -- wrestlers and former wrestlers. I asked them to pick it apart."

Matters of time and place

With that level of attention to detail in describing wrestling action and other elements of the sport, To Be The Best takes on a level of realism that might have some readers wondering, "Is it fiction, or is it someone's real-life story?"

"At first I wanted to set (the story) in my hometown in North Dakota," according to Hertel. "But I purposefully left it vague for readers who want to picture it in their own minds, based on what they know."

"I tried to leave the location vague. Somewhere in the Midwest. I used generic, anywhere school names."

Hertel had similar thoughts about when the novel is set in time: "I tried to be vague about time -- sometime from the late 1980s to present-day. There are things like the rules and weight classes that put it in that time frame. I was seeking something timeless, of just about any time or place."

All those elements make the novel To Be The Best a worthy of consideration for wrestlers, their friends and families, as well as individuals who may not know the difference between a takedown and a touchdown, but have felt the competitive fire burn within their hearts.

To learn more about To Be The Best, visit the official Web site which includes a segment of the book to read online. The book may be purchased at that website, or from It is also available for sale at wrestling events, where it can be used as a fundraiser for local wrestling programs. For details, visit the official Web site.


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