Funding for wrestling would promote more than sport in city public schools

March 05, 2000|By GREGORY KANE

ROGER WRENN, athletic director and football coach at Patterson High School, left the columnist a message, reminding him of exactly who the No. 1 public high school wrestling team in the city is.

"We've won [the city championship] four years in a row," Wrenn said, adding that schools such as Carver, Mervo, City and Poly get their students from across the city through a selective admissions process. Patterson has to take whoever walks through the door.

The columnist, convinced of his premise -- that city public schools began their academic slide just as wrestling lost its popularity -- decided to visit Patterson as part of his mission: shaming public school officials into funding junior varsity wrestling programs again.

So there they sat Thursday afternoon: the 16 toughest guys in Baltimore's public schools, basking in the glow of having trounced their opposition a fourth consecutive year.

"Is there any city public school that can beat you next year?" they're asked.

"Nahhhh!" they answered, in unison, loud and defiant.

"What about Mervo?"

"Nahhhh!"

"What about Lake Clifton?"

"Nahhhhh!"

"What about City?"

"Nahhhhh!"

What, for the past four years, has given Patterson the edge over other city teams? One is their coach, Troy Stevenson, who arrived at the school five years ago and guided the team to a third-place finish in the city tournament. The other edge may be one of philosophy.

"A lot of schools have teams," said senior Richard Johnson, one of three Patterson wrestlers who qualified for the state tournament that concluded yesterday. "We're a family."

They are, indeed, a brood of 16 brothers -- black, white, Native American -- with Stevenson assuming the role of a tough and caring older sibling. Pat Brooks drove home the point.

"We can go to Coach for anything," he said. "He's like a big brother." Stevenson guides his wrestlers, like a big brother. When the occasion calls for it, he'll chide them like a big brother. But most often he jokes with them like a big brother.

"What do you like most about wrestling?" his grapplers are asked.

"Beating up on the coach!" one of them yelled out. The entire group roared with laughter, cheering loudly while their coach flashed a boyish grin. Stevenson said he wrestles his guys. He knows they're improving when they start to beat him.

Most of these boys never wrestled before they got to high school. The inexperience is shared by their counterparts at other city public high schools. Years ago, every city public high school had strong junior varsity wrestling programs, so novices could get much needed experience. But in the late '70s or early '80s -- no one was in the school's athletic office Friday to say which -- school officials cut off funding for junior varsity wrestling programs.

"That hurts us," Stevenson said of the lack of junior varsity teams. "We'll never win a state championship with no junior league and no junior varsity."

Here's Stevenson's dilemma -- one shared by every other city high school coach. He gets a first-year wrestler in the ninth grade who, after harrowing freshman and sophomore years, may finally get enough experience to be of championship caliber. But in his junior and senior years, the same kid is fattening his record with either forfeits or victories over inexperienced freshmen or sophomores. Championship-caliber wrestlers need to face championship-caliber competition. With junior varsity teams, inexperienced wrestlers could face each other. Teams like Patterson could then schedule matches with tougher teams from the surrounding counties and develop their wrestlers' talent.

Here's an alternative idea. City school officials should fund junior league wrestling teams for all city middle schools. Many teachers have said middle school discipline is a nightmare. Nothing helps discipline a boy like a good wrestling workout. At the very least, the workout will wear him out. Boys like football and basketball, but they need wrestling. Put two middle school boys unsupervised in a room, and they'll have each other in a headlock or bear hug inside of five minutes.

Then we can dispatch them to high school, into the loving arms of the Troy Stevensons, the Dwight Warrens (Mervo), Bernie Leneaus (City) and Kama Owenses (Carver) of the school system. City schools joined the state association years ago to compete for state titles. The least the system can do is give them the means to compete.

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