Pitt, WVU are gone, but EWL coaches confident in quality of wrestling
At first blush, the trade doesn't seem fair.
No. 10 Pitt is out of the Eastern Wrestling League. George Mason, which didn't win a dual meet during the 2010-11 season, is in.
Rider replaced West Virginia, which is tied with former member Penn State for the EWL's most NCAA Division I national champions (five) and is the only team other than Pitt or Edinboro to win a team tournament title since 1997.
Yet many associated with the EWL acknowledge that, while this period is more valley than peak, the future is anything but bleak.
“We can develop rivalries with George Mason and Rider and keep our matches with Pitt and West Virginia,” Edinboro coach Tim Flynn said. “Kind of get the best of both worlds.”
The EWL tournament is Saturday, and seven schools will compete: Edinboro, Rider, Bloomsburg, Clarion, Lock Haven, host Cleveland State and George Mason.
“I don't think it's as strong as it's been, but I still think the conference is viable because you're looking at schools that are on an island,” said Jason Bryant, editor of wrestling website theopenmat.com. “You're seeing these schools aligned more with teams that they're competitive with.”
Clarion wrestling coach Troy Letters isn't complaining about the new-look EWL. He's happy the football-driven game of musical chairs in college athletics seemingly has stopped.
“We lost two tough teams (in Pitt and West Virginia), but we were at a point where we were trying to figure out what we were going to do as a conference,” Letters said. “We got stronger by adding those two teams, and now that's off the table. We don't have to think about the future of our conference.”
It may be tough to comprehend why the EWL will be fine without two of its historically strongest programs, but one of the reasons Letters, Bryant and others think the EWL will be OK long-term is because of the league's young, energetic and talented coaches.
A few years ago, Craig Turnbull coached West Virginia and Rande Stottlemyer was at Pitt — almost 70 years between them — but now the seven EWL coaches have a combined 64 years of experience.
Thirty-six belong to Rider's Gary Taylor. The other six have an average tenure of 4.7 years, with Jason Mester in his first year at Bloomsburg and Scott Moore debuting at Lock Haven.
But Mester and Moore aren't exactly newbies to the sport.
Mester won 104 matches at Central Michigan. Scott Moore wrestled at Penn State and Virginia and helped the Cavaliers to their first ACC title in more than 30 years as an assistant coach in 2009-10.
“The conference as a whole, you're seeing new coaches. I think the coach turnover has impacted it a little bit,” Bryant said. “But with guys like Jason Mester and Scott Moore, those are guys who have won, and they're young, energetic coaches.
“I don't think the valley is going to be there too long if the conference stays as it is.”
Conference coaches also don't mind the new geographic footprint. Rider is in New Jersey, one of the sport's strongest areas nationally, and George Mason is only about a half-hour outside Washington, carving a path to Maryland, the District of Columbia and wrestling-rich Virginia.
No. 13 Edinboro remains the only ranked team, and only Fighting Scots A.J. Schopp (second, 133 pounds according to InterMat) and Mitchell Port (first, 141) and Bloomsburg's Richard Perry (sixth, 197) are mainstays in their respective weight classes' national top 10.
But with four core Pennsylvania schools and a group of young, fiery coaches, the hope is that everyone can grow.
“There's been so much tradition and history (in the EWL),” said Flynn, a former Penn State wrestler. “Now we have some new blood. It adds a little excitement because there will be some different rivalries.”