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Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Area loses a legend in Hall of Fame coach Ed Zimmerman

I'm guessing that many of you have heard by now that the wrestling community lost a treasure over the weekend, as District 6 Hall of Famer Ed Zimmerman died at age 68.
Tribune-Democrat sports writer Mike Mastovich, who covered "Zimmie" years ago, wrote the story about his death for Sunday's Tribune-Democrat, which is in the link above.
My family's ties to Zimmie date to 1983, when he took a team of area all-stars, which included my brother Larry, to wrestle in California, Hawaii and New Zealand. The trip further cemented Larry's love for wrestling and, by extension, my family's connection to the sport.
That was just one of the things that Zimmie did for wrestling in the region. During his decades in the coach's chair, he undoubtedly impacted the lives of wrestlers at Richland High School, but he also helped countless others gain media attention. Mike Mastovich told me how Zimmie and Lou Crocco of Westmont helped him get through his first season of wrestling coverage, when he knew very little about the sport. Matt Maisel Twitted that Zimmie did something similar for him during the former WJAC-TV repoter's first trip to the state tournament.
After he retired from coaching, Zimmie even covered the sport for The Tribune-Democrat. This was before I joined the Sports Department. I can remember him writing stories on dual meets and tournaments as well as penning columns for the Tribune. While he wasn't a trained journalist, his love for the sport was never in doubt.
He was inducted into the District 6 Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2010 as a coach and contributor to the sport.
Later, Zimmie stayed involved with the sport as he often traveled with Mark Dugan, who compiles the Off the Mat rankings, to tournaments across the state until 2012, when heart problems limited his ability to attend wrestling events. I wrote about his absence in this column.
I've gotten updates on his health over the years through one of his daughters. He was born with a congenital heart defect and has had heart problems for years. Despite the health issues, he was able to land a cameo in the "Foxcatcher" movie, which is what the attached photo is from.
You can read his full obituary here, but since I know that some of you can't access the Tribune website, I wanted to pass along the details of his service. Friends and Family will be received from 2 to 8 p.m. Tuesday, June 2, 2015, at Harris Funeral Home, 500 Cherry Lane, Richland, where service will be held at 1 p.m. Wednesday.
I considered Zimmie to be a friend and a great ambassador for the sport. He will truly be missed.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Bishop McCort adding wrestling

I try to treat the offseason as just that - time off from the blog - but this story is just to big to ignore.
Bishop McCort is looking to add wrestling, sooner rather than later. The Crimson Crushers have been wrestling in a co-op with Westmont Hilltop the past three seasons. They attempted to end that co-op this week, but Westmont is making them live up to the terms of their contract, which runs through the 2015-16 season.
Bishop McCort Principal Tom Fleming said that the Crimson Crushers will be starting a program; it's just a year later than they had hoped. You can read Ron Musselman's story about it in The Tribune-Democrat.
The issue is starting to get contentious, as Westmont folks are upset about Bishop McCort ending the co-op. I can understand both sides of the argument. Three of Westmont's stud freshman - Anthony Walters (160, PIAA-8, SW-4, D6-2), Carnell Andrews (120, SW-4, D6-2) and Josiah Jones (220, D6-2, injury ended season) - attend Bishop McCort. If you're a Bishop McCort person, you're saying why should pay $10,000 to Westmont to wrestle for their team when we can start our own program? Westmont parents and fans, on the other hand, are upset because they feel that the McCort wrestlers are biting the hand that feeds them. Coach Matt Beaujon has helped develop Bishop McCort wrestlers over the past three years, even if the biggest names are only freshmen.
So I don't have strong feelings either way on that argument. Like any breakup, there are going to be hard feelings.
I did however, get into a lengthy Twitter debate about the potential of the Bishop McCort program. The way I see it, this could become a powerhouse program almost from its inaugural season, and I think that it's a scenario that public schools in districts 5 and 6 have long feared.
Don't believe me? Take a look at this:
That shows the area in a 30-mile radius from Johnstown, which seems like a reasonable distance that students might travel to attend a private school if so motivated. It's probably a bit unrealistic to expect anyone to travel from Latrobe or Hollidaysburg on a daily basis, but not so much for Ligonier Valley, Central Cambria or North Star. I know of some students that have attended Bishop McCort in the past few years from those school districts.
I'm not going to get into the "private schools recruit" debate that invariably pops up in these discussions. Let's say, for the sake of argument, that there is no recruiting going on whatsoever in our scenario. I still think that Bishop McCort could easily attract some of the top talent in the area without reaching out to anyone if the right coach is in place.
Imagine if the Crimson Crushers were somehow able to launch a program with Jody Strittmatter of Young Guns at the helm. Wrestlers from at least that 30-mile radius would be lining up to look at Bishop McCort under such a scenario. Not only would you get the guy responsible for the No. 1 club in the nation, but the big names that would follow would make most school practices have the feel of a club practice. That would make the Crimson Crushers a legitimate state contender in no time.
To be clear, I don't expect Strittmatter (or either of his brothers) to become the Bishop McCort coach. That was just a best-case/worst-case scenario (depending on your perspective).
Even without an elite club coach in the mix, Bishop McCort could find a well-respected local coach to give the program instant credibility. Again, without doing anything illegal or immoral, the program could draw interest from local wrestlers. Imagine you're a wrestler (or parent) at a school that doesn't have a very strong team. You are the best in the room and don't get much competition in practice. Now, you have the option of going to a private school (not for athletic intent, of course) where you already have three likely state qualifiers in the room and, potentially, a better coach. Most competitors would at least consider that option.
Here's a list of schools that are within about a 30-minute drive that the program could reasonably draw from:
  • Greater Johnstown
  • Ferndale
  • Conemaugh Valley
  • Westmont Hilltop
  • Richland
  • Windber
  • North Star
  • Forest Hills
  • Blacklick Valley
  • Central Cambria
  • Conemaugh Township
  • Shade
  • Somerset
  • Chestnut Ridge
  • Ligonier Valley
  • Blairsville
  • United
Think you could come up with a pretty good team by getting one wrestler from even half of those schools? I certainly do. That was the discussion I was having on Twitter - a private school doesn't need to have a feeder system because, fair or not, students can come in from other districts.
Now, if Bishop McCort doesn't hire a well-known and well-respected coach and instead hires a caretaker to collect a few PIAA medals courtesy of the studs already on the roster, it could very well be a middle-of-the-road - or worse - program. It could have the big three and very little after that, in which case that lack of a feeder system would be huge.
That's the feast-or-famine scenario that private schools face in wrestling. Need an example? Look at Shady Side Academy. A few years ago, they were winning regional titles left and right at the War Memorial and competing for state team titles. By 2013, they couldn't field a team.
So will Bishop McCort's program be more like Bethlehem Catholic or St. Joseph's Academy, a fellow District 6 school that started wrestling a few years ago? It's too early to tell. The single most important factor will be who is hired to lead the program.