If the way to a man’s heart truly is through his stomach, then hungry wrestlers at St. Mary’s can use that as further motivation at this program not recently known for its grappling success.

“We have a deal that if someone qualifies for state, coach (Nic) Olney will take us out to a steak dinner,” Pirates senior Cannon Wille said.

Well, order one up medium rare for Wille, who won claimed the fourth and final state berth at 190 pounds in a dramatic 2-0 wrestle-back decision Saturday at the regional tournament in Monte Vista. And junior heavyweight Miles Keane likes his well done. He’ll get his dinner, too, after he finished fourth as well, but without the drama of the wrestle-back.

“They remembered the steak dinner deal,” said Olney, the football coach at St. Mary’s who is completing his third year overseeing the rebuilding wrestling team. “For the first time in five years, we have state qualifiers in wrestling. We’re pretty excited.”

Three years ago, Wille joined Olney and a sparse group of wrestlers, most recruited from the football team, as the squad struggled to maintain numbers.

This season, seven Pirates suited up and finally had two break through to represent their small school at the Pepsi Center, starting Thursday at the state tournament.

“I have a great group of kids who are very devoted,” Olney said. “Cannon is my only senior left from the original class. He’s been the foundation for a lot of it.”

Starting out at 160, Wille came to practice about as green as his singlet, dropping every match that season.

“We had very few people that knew how to wrestle, including me,” Wille said. “We got beat up, but there was never any discouragement. Everyone had a lot of fun, and we wanted to keep the program going.”

Assistance from Ike Anderson, a sixth-place finisher in Greco-Roman wrestling at the 1988 Seoul Games, accelerated the learning curve as the Pirates got to practice at the Olympic Training Center.

This season, St. Mary’s, without a wrestling room of its own, set up shop at nearby Sunny Vista Living Center, bringing mats into a spot normally reserved for dining.

That actually might have helped the Pirates become more determined.

“It didn’t matter that we weren’t at the OTC, but we all knew what we wanted out of this season,” Keane said. “We all rallied as a team to do that. We pushed every day at practice. This year, the results were there.”

Athletic director Ed Latimer never wavered in his backing of Olney and his new crew of athletes, even in tough times. He expects numbers to spike as the success has hit new levels

“It took some time to get it going, but we knew we were going to have a good program,” Latimer said. “We have something that’s going to grow. Looking forward, as kids see the program, they’re going to want to be a part of that.”

And the promise of a steak dinner, too.