Sport Of Wrestling Losing Its Grip On Howard Students Only 3 Of 8 Schools Have Full Teams This Year

December 26, 1990|By Rick Belz

These are hard times for the county high school wrestling program.

Only three of the eight teams can fill all 13 of their weight classes.

Only two teams, Hammond and Centennial, have at least 30 people out combined for the varsity and junior varsity teams.

Even Oakland Mills, which has won 11 of the last 14 county tournaments, has only 26 out. And the numbers change, usually downward, daily.

"I've had 19 quit so far this year," Scorpions third-year coach Dan Ricker said.

Mount Hebron has only 18, Atholton 19, Wilde Lake 20. The numbers are so small they are pathetic and sad and worrisome for wrestling enthusiasts.

It is doubtful that a single school will field a complete junior varsity team this year.

Heavyweights are particularly hard to find at any level. Varsity teams at Centennial, Wilde Lake and Howard are all looking for one.

Some blame the situation on a crop of student-athletes spawned by overindulgent parents.

"A lot of these Columbia kids are soft and spoiled," Oakland Mills's Ricker said. "All they want to do after school is go home and watch television. And the parents are always complaining that I'm working their kids too hard."

Ricker, a former county wrestling champ and all-county football player for Glenelg, as well as a highly successful running back at Towson State University where he set the school's career rushing record, runs a tough program -- almost like a boot camp. And that turns a lot of youths and parents off.

But Ricker's teams have won all 14 of their county dual-meets since he took over, so he's doing something right.

"The program must be sold to the kids because there are so many other things to do," said former Oakland Mills coach Steve Carnahan, who coached three state championship teams in 14 years. "You have to make it fun and get them committed before you start on tough workouts."

Other coaches, like Howard's Fred Bullock, think the problem is a lack of a countywide junior league wrestling program.

"Wrestling is down in Howard County because it lacks a junior league program, and kids and parents just don't know the sport," Bullock said.

"Parents are afraid their kids will get hurt."

A Columbia-based youth wrestling program called COBRA folded four years ago. It used to feed Oakland Mills, Atholton and Wilde Lake. However, not everyone feels that a feeder program is essential.

"It's nice to have that feeder program," Carnahan said. "But most of my champions had never wrestled before high school."

Bullock coached for 14 years at Southwestern in Baltimore City, winning five championships and coaching 30 Maryland Scholastic Association champions before coming to Howard last year. He immediately improved Howard's sagging program, winning three dual meets and losing four.

But this year he faces a discouraging defection in the ranks. Of 19 wrestlers that could have returned, only eight are back. It's hard to build a program with that lack of commitment.

Others feel that the real problem is a lack of coaches who also teach at the same high school where they coach.

Bullock has tried -- unsuccessfully -- to get a teaching job at Howard High.

Only one coach, Bill Smith at Hammond, also teaches at his high school.

Only two of the eight coaches are teachers in the county system. Only three of the eight coaches are even teachers.

Two coaches are still going to college, one is a salesman, one is an insurance and investments agent and one is an electrician.

That doesn't mean they can't be good coaches, but it makes it difficult to recruit kids for the team when you are not working in the building all day.

"If they don't find someone inside the building to take the team, then I don't know what will happen to this program," 23-year-old Mount Hebron coach Alex Pagnotta said.

The once-proud Vikings program is in a shambles. For a Dec. 14 meet the team was able to field just eight wrestlers. "And a couple of those were really junior varsity kids we were using just to fill up the squad," said Pagnotta, a former county champion for Glenelg.

Pagnotta will attempt to coach from afar this year. He just recently was transferred in his sales job to New Jersey. "I'll try to commute back for the matches and some practices," he said.

Others think the real problem is one of continuity. In the past few years a number of veteran coaches, each with about 15 to 20 years of experience, quit coaching.

The names are well known. Ed Boxwell, the founder of the county high school wrestling program, quit four years ago at Atholton. George Myers quit the same year at Mount Hebron. Steve Carnahan, after 14 years and three state titles, quit three years ago at Oakland Mills.

At last count, there were about 10 teachers in the system who are former wrestling coaches. They are either burned out by the demanding sport and long season or now have other priorities.

The coaching vacuum has forced county officials to hire younger coaches.

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