InterMat Reads: To Be The Best: Rematch

Whether it's a movie or a book, folks love sequels. After all, it's fun to revisit a cast of characters we've come to know, spend more time with them, and experience new adventures together.

That's the case with To Be The Best: Rematch, the latest novel from former wrestler H.L. Hertel ... sequel to his first book, To Be The Best, published three years ago, which focused on the lives of Ron and Nick Castle, Midwest high school wrestlers, their teammates, and the assistant coach at their school, Sean MacCallister. Both books are published by HH Castle-Mac Publishing.

At the website for his books, Hertel cited the strong support from readers of the original To Be The Best as a significant incentive for finishing the sequel, saying that readers from various ages and walks of life -- not just wrestlers -- contacted the author to tell him how the first novel had a positive impact on their lives.

"I've been working on this project for about 17 years, working on the sequel along with the first one," Hertel said in the most recent interview for InterMat.

Hertel's original intent, according to a 2008 interview with InterMat, was to write a screenplay, which then took on a new life as a book ... then, eventually, two.

Tackling tough topics not covered in most wrestling novels

Weighing in at 234 pages, Rematch returns to Riverside High School for another school year. Older brother Ron Castle is a gifted athlete who made the state finals as a sophomore; his brother Nick may not have the natural wrestling talent of his sibling, but makes up for it with hard work and undeniable competitive spirit.

The Castle brothers symbolize a long-standing argument in all sports that's a variation of nature vs. nurture: "Which is better: innate, natural talent ... or can training and perseverance overcome any shortcomings in talent?" Despite the differences in talent, both boys share the dream of being a state champion.

Readers of Rematch can't help but notice the author's introduction, in which he shares his wife's reaction after her initial read-through of the book: "'Wow, this is dark,' was her first comment," Hertel writes.

The author continues in the book's introduction, "Her first impression about sums up the tone set for the second installment of the To Be The Best series. The first novel dealt the characters several challenges but, by and large, the high schoolers all came from homes that remind me of my own growing up -- stable, with two loving parents. With that firmly in place, I turned to the background story of the assistant coach [Sean MacCallister] to create a home life that is the antithesis of my own."

H.L. Hertel
As Hertel points out at the website for the two books, MacCallister has to deal with more than his fair share of challenges ... and that's apparent from the opening pages of Rematch, and throughout the new book, as the likeable assistant coach battles alcohol dependence, a recurring health issue, unfair allegations of unlawful behavior, and job loss, among other difficulties.

"At the end of the day, I am confident that the values inherent in Sean MacCallister, along with his ability to persevere and learn from some poor choices, will not only capture the minds and hearts of school-aged readers but serve as a guidepost for capturing their potential to be the best," Hertel said of the assistant coach character.

When asked about these elements -- and the overall grittiness of Rematch, especially compared to many other wrestling novels -- Hertel responded, "The new book is a step more mature than the original. I would say that the first book was geared to readers seventh grade and up, while the sequel is more for ninth grade and up."

Addressing one recurring element throughout Rematch, Hertel said, "I wanted to portray alcohol abuse in a realistic way, and show what it can do to damage relationships."

Another mature aspect of the new book that is rarely addressed in most high school wrestling novels is what could be called the politics of coaching. Rematch hits these elements head-on, with battles among the coaches at Riverside (including an assistant -- not Sean MacCallister -- who seems to put career advancement ahead of good relations with other staff members), and how coaches treat young athletes, for example, how to motivate wrestlers to do well, and whether the coaches recognize hard work.

"Politics, whether at work or school, is something humans bring to the table," said Hertel. "Just because you're the best person for the job doesn't mean you'll get it. Someone with an agenda gets in the way -- I thought that would be an interesting plot device."

In addressing the more adult issues addressed in Rematch, the author concluded, "I would urge parents that they might want to take a spin through the book first."

Response from test readers ... and those in the real world

All that said, Rematch has been read -- and reread -- by Hertel, his wife, and a team of test readers.

"I felt like I read the book 15 times, with all the test readers commenting on it," said Hertel. "We had a team of about ten test readers and editors, including a wrestling coach, a high school phys ed teacher, a doctor, wrestling parents. Each one brought a different perspective from their reading of the book. I took their comments into consideration during the writing process of the book."

In addition to these test readers, H.L. Hertel also had extensive comments from readers of the original To Be The Best book that helped shape its sequel, Rematch.

"What I found in promoting my [first] book, is the wide range of readers. I get comments from girls who read it. It floors me the array of readers of all ages and interests. It's not just wrestlers and their families."

Hertel continued, "High school boys and girls are all dealing with physical and emotional challenges -- relationships, bullying, being accepted. These are universal themes; you don't have to be an athlete to understand."

The author continued, "High school athletes -- particularly boys -- aren't big readers. As videogames have become more prevalent, reading has been on a decline."

"If I can come up with a story that's compelling, that they can relate to, perhaps that can get them do more reading, which is ultimately a good thing."

"The story I'm trying to tell addresses the pursuit of a dream while dealing with life's complications," Hertel continued. "The books have high school characters which makes them appealing to high school readers, but I do want to also appeal to adults, too."

Because it takes on tough issues such as alcohol abuse, To Be The Best: Rematch is a bit grittier than many other high school wrestling novels, which makes it appropriate to a more mature reader, high school age and up. But don't be put off by that. Rematch is even more appealing than the original, with surprising plot developments that will keep readers turning the pages to see what happens next. (Note: You can read Rematch without having read the original, in that Hertel does a good job bringing first-timers up-to-speed on the characters and their pasts.) Wrestlers and fans will especially appreciate Hertel's ability to realistically portray action in the wrestling room and on the mat. The author's description of the climatic rematch between one of the Castle brothers and a much-feared rival for the state title is especially compelling for its rich detail and intricate plot twists.

To learn more about To Be The Best: Rematch, visit the official website, 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 website.


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