WINCHESTER — Sherando wrestling coach Brian Kibler fondly remembers his father taking him to several James Madison University wrestling matches in Harrisonburg when he was a kid.
The 2002 Strasburg High School graduate went on to wrestle for JMU in college, but the young children who watched him compete never had the chance to wrestle for the Dukes like he did. A year after his JMU career ended in 2006, the school announced it was shutting down the program.
Starting next year though, a lot more kids in the Shenandoah Valley will have the chance to wrestle collegiately nearby like Kibler did.
Shenandoah University announced that it will make wrestling its 22nd intercollegiate sport starting with the 2020-21 school year in a news conference on Monday at the James R. Wilkins, Jr. Athletics & Events Center.
“Those kinds of things stick in the heads of kids,” said Kibler of what it meant to him to attend local college matches. “The more you see it, the more you’re around it, and the higher level you’re around, the better it is for your area.”
Naturally, local high school coaches couldn’t be happier that SU is adding a wrestling program.
Most colleges elect not to sponsor teams in the predominantly male sport mainly because of Title IX requirements. According to the NCAA, in 2018 only 22 percent of all colleges fielded wrestling programs.
More schools are adding wrestling in recent years, as there were only 217 in 2010. But that’s a far cry from the 1980s. In 1982 (the first year available for NCAA sponsorship date), 48 percent of colleges fielded wrestling teams, and in 1985 8,572 people participated. Wrestling teams are larger now than they were in the 1980s, and wrestling participation has increased steadily since 2005, when there were 5,939 competitors. Last year’s total of 7,239 participants is still dramatically less than the 1985 total though.
Until Monday, wrestling and swimming were the only sports offered by the local public high schools that SU did not sponsor. SU expects to field teams of 30-35 members by the 2021-22 season.
“I’m extremely excited about it,” Kibler said. “You give opportunities for local high school athletes to potentially go and compete. If you look at some of the really successful programs [at SU] like the baseball program that seems to be in the playoffs annually, they have a lot of local kids on the roster.
“I think it gives kids in our area a chance to go and compete at a higher level who maybe aren’t Division I or II guys, but they’re still pretty good in their own right.”
There are currently only four NCAA Division III colleges in Virginia that sponsor wrestling. The two closest — Southern Virginia University in Buena Vista and Washington & Lee University in Lexington — are approximately 130 miles from Winchester.
“It’s long overdue for this area,” Strasburg coach Mike Wood said. “If you look around the Strasburg, Winchester, Woodstock area, the colleges that are the closest like Bridgewater, Shenandoah, JMU, up until this point, none of them have wrestling, and JMU dropped their program [in 2007]. These schools need to have programs.”
Wood said it’s particularly good to see a Division III program nearby. The area boasts plenty of wrestling talent —schools in Winchester, Frederick County, Warren County and Shenandoah County routinely win individual state championships and challenge for and sometimes win team state championships — but spots on NCAA Division I programs are hard to come by.
“The D-I wrestlers are coming from Pa., Ohio, New Jersey predominantly, some of the states that are known for wrestling. Virginia, as a rule, doesn’t produce a ton of D-I wrestlers a year, especially in certain areas of the state. But there’s a lot of D-III caliber kids in these programs [in the Shenandoah Valley] which are going to benefit from schools like Shenandoah.”
Warren County coach Matt Wadas noted how much of an impact the addition of wrestling to Ferrum College in 2012 has had on Virginia. Ferrum hosted this year’s NCAA Division III Championships.
“[Ferrum] recruited heavily from Virginia when it started,” Wadas said. “A lot of kids that maybe wouldn’t be wrestling started heading down there.
“Shenandoah’s right on [Interstate] 81, so they can recruit northern Virginia, West Virginia, Pa. I think they could be good fast.”
Wood said he’d love to see SU put another type of high-level event — the VHSL state wrestling championships.
The VHSL currently uses three different venues (two classifications for each location) for state wrestling. Wood thinks the Wilkins Center would not only make for a great venue for high-schoolers, but he also could see SU’s wrestling program benefiting from hosting the state championships.
“Maybe they could get us out of [the] Salem [Civic Center], where they’ve done nothing to improve that arena,” said Wood of the current host of the Class 1 and 2 championships. “It’s almost disgraceful honestly to go there. They haven’t done anything to clean it up. These kids work so hard all year long then they go to a place like the Salem Civic Center.
“The state tournament in any sport is the highlight of a kid’s high school career, and you can’t have it at a sub-par arena. So Shenandoah University getting wrestling, that’s a great way for their coaches, their school to draw in the best wrestlers in the state and talk to them right in their front yard. They can talk to these kids and get a lot of recruits.”
Of course, not everyone is cut out to wrestle in college at any level, but the feeling is that simply having a local college program around will make wrestlers of all ages better.
For starters, college teams usually hold camps and clinics for youth wrestlers, so learning opportunities should be plentiful.
“With camps and clinics and potential clubs, especially through USA wrestling, there could potentially be a lot more training opportunities for local wrestlers that want to take it to a higher level,” Kibler said. “And there’s higher-level kids in the area to learn from. You’re able to listen to some of their perspectives as far as athletes and even learn from them directly in a camp, clinic, club type of environment.
“So it’s very, very beneficial from a high school athlete perspective and even a high school coach’s perspective.”
And just the fact that there will be local college matches to go could be a learning tool. Wadas says he can see himself taking his entire team over to watch matches.
Handley assistant coach Nick Sardelis was in attendance at Monday’s announcement. For the past half-dozen years Sardelis has also been the head coach for the Red Lion Wrestling Club in Winchester, which features kids age 4 through high school age. He thinks it will be great for wrestlers of all ages to have such close access to college athletes.
“This is great for the kids and the community,” Sardelis said. “Kids that have been in this area and have had success and gone on to wrestle collegiately and then they come back and run clinics and work with the younger kids.
“When you’re little, it’s good for kids to get these role models who came from the same place that you grow up. I’m sure once [SU] gets going, we’ll bring our kids up here to watch dual meets and stuff like that. There’s endless possibilities.”
Handley coach Troy Mezzatesta said it would be great if SU involved youth wrestlers. More Kiblers could be produced that way.
“VMI, [George] Mason, they like to have youth clubs do something pre-match before their big college match, things like that,” Mezzatesta said. “It will be exciting for kids to have close access to college wrestling, which can always inspire and make them go, ‘I can do that.’ I think this is going to be cool.”