Gary Wise was like a lot of area youth while attending Fairmont East High School in the early 1970s. He was undersized in an era when there were few athletic alternatives - no soccer and the Girls Athletic Association was on its way out.
And then it happened. Falcons football and wrestling coach Larry McVey introduced Wise to the skill of taking down and overcoming an opponent in a sport that traces its roots to the beginning of recorded history.
“The two people I reflect back on who have helped me the most is my high school wrestling coach getting me involved in wrestling by having it in physical education,” said Wise, who was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame Ohio Chapter this fall. “That was Larry McVey and then Stamat Bulugaris at Wright State University.”
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There’s no one better to reflect on the state of wrestling than Wise. He was a three-time NCAA Division II national qualifier at WSU with Bulugaris as his coach. He’s also among a strong contingent of veteran area wrestling coaches, entering his 27th season as Beavercreek’s head coach.
The high school season began last weekend. Here’s what the hall of famer had to say about the state of the sport, participation numbers and the influx of girls.
• The National Federation of High Schools reports participation numbers in all sports have increased for the 16th straight year. That can be attributed to a steady population growth.
In Ohio, there were 13,098 boys who wrestled in the 2006-07 school year. Last season - 10 years later - boys participation was 11,550. However, the number of schools that offer wrestling has increased by 61 since 1996-97. Something in the sport has changed and lower participation numbers are the result.
“It’s complicated,” Wise said. “It’s almost like in pockets. In some areas wrestling is still strong and still has good participation and in other pockets not so much.”
Wise views the popular specialization with mixed approval. Boys who wrestle year around on club and school teams are more advanced and far superior than those who don’t. And that’s the problem.
It’s not uncommon for area Division I schools not to be able to fill all 14 weight classes. With top-level individuals, these programs can fare well in large invitationals, but not so much in dual meets because of multiple forfeits.
“There’s that elite line,” Wise said. “If you have a bunch of elite kids it’s hard to keep a team together. Nobody wants to (practice) every day and go through a tremendously difficult practice.”
• Football’s close relationship to wrestling also has waned over the years. Gone are the days when football coaches demanded linemen and those not playing basketball to wrestle.
“In those 1960s and ’70s, you would have the football coach as the wrestling coach or an assistant football coach was the wrestling coach,” Wise said. “You had that direct tie-in. That tie-in is not there now.
“We see football players are going into the weight room and not coming into the wrestling room nearly as much as I think that would benefit them.”
• The sport has grown in other ways. Girls wrestling is now the norm at all levels: peewee, middle and high school. And their participation numbers are growing.
Ten years ago the NFHS reported there were 87 girl wrestlers in Ohio. That has risen to 195 each of the last three seasons. Nationally, there were 14,587 girls who wrestled last season. Twenty years ago that number was 1,629.
Sophomore Kaileigh Nuessgen competes at 106 pounds on Beavercreek’s varsity and it’s her second season to do so. She was one of only three Beavers who were 5-0 in last weekend’s Cincinnati Elder Duals, a high-end season opening event that draws many of the Southwest District’s best programs.
“It’s a slow incline that more girls are getting involved,” Wise said. “Now, it’s not rare at all. Wrestling in the Olympics has helped that. There is college club wrestling. It’s more accepted. I was not real excited about that 20 years ago. Now, that’s a common practice.”
• With the exception of D-II area power Graham, northern Ohio still produces the bulk of the state’s best individuals and teams. That’s renowned wrestling country.
“A lot of it is the heritage of it,” Wise said. “There’s an assumption that you’re going to be a wrestler. They’ve got the numbers, a lot of tough kids who can handle the sport because they have better numbers than we do.”