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The resemblance was almost uncanny Saturday morning as Tyler and Sonya Legate slipped into the folding chairs in the corner of Mat 5 at the CHI Health Center in Omaha.
They sat on the edge of the metal chairs, elbows resting on their knees as they yelled both instructions and encouragement to Pierce 160-pounder Brett Tinker. While Tyler and Sonya are no strangers to wrestling, the weekend marked the first time the brother and sister duo coached together on Nebraska’s biggest high school stage.
“This is her first year helping me, and I was never hesitant about it,” said Tyler, head coach at Pierce and 2007 graduate of Neligh-Oakdale. “The kids really like her, and she’s done a great job."
While it’s not common to see a female coaching wrestling at state — or on any high school mat for that matter — 25-year-old Sonya, who graduated from Elkhorn Valley in 2012, looked as comfortable coaching as she said she felt. Like any good wrestler, Sonya’s working her way around the mat, waiting for the right time to take her shot.
“For me, I want to coach girls’ wrestling, but right now, I have to be coaching boys,” Sonya said minutes before Tinker took the mat for the Class C fifth-place match.
“It’s about coaching. Just coaching,” Tyler added.
Roger and Rosemary Legate’s three children were raised on the wrestling mat in their Neligh basement. Tyler and Colby Legate are the only brothers to ever win state titles at Neligh-Oakdale with Tyler winning 189 in 2007 and Colby at 171 in 2009. They are also the last Warriors to strike gold at the state meet.
But Sonya didn’t wrestle competitively. She practiced, but Tyler said their parents never allowed her wrestle in matches. Against two state champions at home, one could argue she was forced to be competitive every time she stepped on the mat in the basement.
“My ears are ripped from them. They ripped the earrings off while wrestling,” Sonya said while grabbing her ear lobes.
Tyler added with a laugh, “That sounds weird to people because she’s a girl, but we always treated her like a brother. She’s tough because we beat on her.”
Sonya took that toughness to Waldorf University, where she wrestled for four years. Located 120 miles south of Minneapolis, it was an opportunity for the volleyball and basketball standout to compete in freestyle wrestling rather than the more common folkstyle, which is what is utilized at the youth and high school level in Nebraska.
Sonya wrestled collegiately while earning her bachelor’s degree from Waldorf in 2017. She’s now wrapping up her teaching certification from Wayne State College and will student teach in the fall, following in her family footsteps as an elementary teacher. Besides Tyler being at Pierce, Rosemary is a preschool teacher at Elkhorn Valley.
Tyler said they talked many times about Sonya joining his staff as an assistant coach, and having her freestyle background has helped his wrestlers tremendously with footwork and hand placement. He’s adamant that Sonya isn’t on his staff because she’s his sister or because he’s pushing female wrestling. Her coaching and knowledge, he said, are impeccable.
“Freestyle is a different style. You have to be good on your feet, and she’s learned different stuff,” he said. “I hope I get that message out here. We’re not trying to break a trend. It’s because she’s a good coach. She’s been good with the guys, and the guys have accepted her as just a coach.”
Sonya’s goal is to coach female wrestling, and both believe it will happen soon. Female wrestling at the high school level has been a hot topic in Nebraska for several years and is gaining more momentum annually.
“Women’s wrestling is the fastest growing sport in the nation. It’ll be sanctioned soon in Nebraska,” Tyler said. “It’s passed four of the six districts, so maybe next year or two years for sure. If I can get a girls’ team in Pierce, I’d love to see her build a program there.”
Both Tyler and Sonya said they’ve enjoyed coaching together, especially seeing each other on a daily basis after so many years apart. Sonya was in seventh grade when Tyler graduated from Neligh-Oakdale. A football standout, he led Class C2 with 2,051 yards rushing and 29 touchdowns. Having spent his first year of college at the University of South Dakota, Tyler then walked on at the University of Nebraska and eventually earned a scholarship as the starting fullback.
He graduated from UNL the same year Sonya graduated from Elkhorn Valley, which meant he watched a few basketball games but missed every volleyball match due to his own football career.
They’re making up for lost time now and enjoying every minute.
While reflecting on their closeness, Tyler said everything becomes a life lesson, just like those learned on the wrestling mat. Of course, now he has a familiar — and quite similar — face teaching those lessons.
“At the end of day, the real game is life. I hope I can teach these kids that,” Tyler said. “This is life. You’re going to get tripped up in life, and I’m trying to teach them that. Sonya is right there, too, teaching. We’ve all had our ups and downs in life, and she’s teaching these lessons, too.”