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Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Will Northern Cambria ever have a wrestling program again?

District 6 will be without one of its Class AA programs this year, and the future doesn't look too bright for getting it back.
As I reported on Tuesday for The Tribune-Democrat, Northern Cambria has suspended its wrestling program. It's not all that surprising, given the fact that the Colts have been struggling with numbers for years, and after speaking with Athletic Director Jim Yeager, it certainly seemed like the right call.
Northern Cambria had nine varsity wrestlers last season, but five of those were seniors. Of the four returning, one goes to Purchase Line High School, leaving just three wrestlers from Northern Cambria. Making matters worse was the fact that Northern Cambria didn't have a single junior high wrestler last year. That's right, not one.
Hard to justify all of the costs involved with a wrestling program for three wrestlers. Even if they did talk a few first-year guys into coming out - which I didn't get any indication of, since Yeager was not permitted to give specific numbers - the odds are stacked against guys who don't wrestle until they get to the varsity level.
If you're reading this blog, you likely know that wrestling isn't a sport for everyone. It's demanding. It's hard. It's often painful. You either love it or you don't do it for long.
Unfortunately, it doesn't look like there is a love for it in the Northern Cambria School District at this point.
Perhaps the most distressing part of the situation is the apathy surrounding the sport. Yeager, who wrestled in high school and was around the sport for decades at Cambria Heights, said that he didn't hear from single parent regarding the decision to cancel the season. A whole week and no one called to ask if Northern Cambria could field a team that only wrestles tournaments, like St. Joseph's Academy did last year? Not one person inquiring as to whether or not team members could wrestle for Cambria Heights or another school?
That's disturbing. Schools put wrestling teams on the chopping block from time to time, but there is usually an effort to save the program, such as there was with Washington High in 2012. It doesn't look there is any in Northern Cambria.
I called the school's varsity coach and a former coach and neither returned my phone calls, so I wasn't able to gain any insight into what the sport looks like at the youth levels, but I'm guessing there isn't much there, either.
There is a Northern Cambria wrestling Facebook page, but it hasn't been updated since July 20. Where is the effort to save the Colts?
Northern Cambria started its program in 1998-99, and has never had much success in dual meets, going a combined 39-202 in its career, but it has produced a number of quality individuals. It's had a pair of district champs (Andy Turner in 2005 and Mike Paronish in 2006) and three 100-match winners (Turner, Paronish and Scott Knarr). That's a nice little lineage it has going.
It seems to be so difficult for newer programs to take root and flourish. Shade, which started around the same time, has faced many of the same struggles as Northern Cambria. Yes, the Panthers had a full lineup when Ryan Hill was the coach and beating the drum for the program, but they dropped off quickly after he stepped down. They had very good wrestler in James "Wolf" Otten, but they haven't been able to duplicate that success.
Neither Northern Cambria nor Shade has been around long enough to have wrestlers who have the sport in their DNA. Take a look at the successful programs in the area and the names on their rosters. Odds are, they are the same names that were there 20-something years ago.
Wrestling is a sport that is often passed on from father to son. It relies on those who grew up with the sport. Sadly, it looks like there might never be a second generation of Turners, Knarrs or Paronishes for Northern Cambria.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Local wrestling community loses one of its biggest supporters

The local wrestling community lost one of its biggest supporters on Tuesday.
Emil Branas of Portage passed away at age 77.
While his name might not be familiar to some, rest assured, he had a huge impact on the sport over the past 40 or more years. He worked behind the scenes, doing the types of jobs that aren't glamorous and don't get much notice but that are vital to the sport we love. He served as a volunteer scorekeeper and timekeeper at tournaments around the state, whether at the elementary, high school or college level. He was even honored as Pennsylvania Junior Wrestling's man of the year in 2002 for his service.
Mr. Branas was a former coal miner and Marine who served in the Korea and Vietnam eras in the Asian Pacific Theater. And, as the saying goes, once a Marine, always a Marine. He wasn't one for political correctness or to mince words. Whether it was referring to himself as “that old cripple from Portage” – a mining accident confined him to wheelchair for years, though he later was able walk with crutches and leg braces – or letting local media members know what he thought of their sometimes sparse wrestling coverage, he always spoke his mind.
When I saw Mr. Branas' obituary and mentioned it in the newsroom, the name immediately resonated, even with those who had not covered wrestling in decades.
Luckily, I was on Mr. Branas' good side from the start. He and my father had become friends years earlier with the shared experience of thousands of hours sitting in stuffy gymnasiums as their sons and grandsons wrestled across the state and country.
It's quite possible that I met Mr. Branas when I was in high school – if I did, I no longer remember it – but I will never forget the first time I heard his voice in The Tribune-Democrat newsroom. I was working on the copy desk, a position where I didn't do any writing, the first winter after having left the Daily American. The late Mike Elswick, who was the TD sports editor at the time, called me over to the answering machine to listen to a message. “This is Emil Branas of Portage,” his recorded voice boomed through the still quiet afternoon newsroom. “I don't understand why you guys don't cover more wrestling. You've got a guy there who can do a great job with it in Eric Knopsnyder, and you don't even have him working in sports!”
I had to ask around to find out who he was and how he knew about me, but I never forgot him after that moment. Through the years, I got the chance to talk with him quite often when I did work in sports and cover wrestle for The Tribune-Democrat. I would see him almost every year at the District 6 tournament in Altoona and I'd chat with his daughter, Susan Lucas, who worked at the newspaper and was raised in wrestling-mad family just like mine. He'd always ask about my family and fill me in on his.
The impact that Mr. Branas and, by extension his family, had on wrestling stretched from Portage to North Carolina. His sons have coached and worked with many young wrestlers over the years to spread their love for and knowledge of the sport.
Wrestling was far from Mr. Branas' only interest – he also worked with a number of veterans organizations and made more than 600 platelet donations – so I'm sure that there are thousands of others who have been touched by his contributions. His death is a loss for their communities as well as ours, but the impact that he had will most certainly carry on for years to come.
Friends will be received from 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesday and 2 to 4 and 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday at Serenko-Claar Funeral Home in Portage with a Funeral Mass at St. Bartholomew Church in Wilmore at 11 a.m. Friday.