Nearly shut down, FR wrestling now on top
What a difference 12 years can make.
After securing the school's first county title in history and with a spot in next week's WPIAL Class AAA team tournament secure, times are good for Franklin Regional wrestling.
Those successes would have been hard to envision during the 2000-01 school year, however, as it was little more than a decade ago that a plan to ditch Franklin Regional's varsity wrestling program as a cost-cutting measure seemed imminent.
But from its near death at the hands of a budget-minded school board, the Panthers have gone through a renaissance on the mats, with individuals claiming major titles and now the team appearing to be its most potent since sometime in the last century.
“It's really quite gratifying to see where the program is today and to see it in such good hands,” said Dom Colangelo, a math teacher at Franklin Regional Middle School and a former coach in the FR program.
“It was always a program that had two or three really strong wrestlers but not much else. In fairness, what the school board wanted to do was understandable because we only had six or seven kids on the varsity team. I think if we hadn't intervened, the program would be gone now.”
The wrestling program wasn't the only target for cuts, as many departments within the school were ordered to make budget cuts. With participation waning and a varsity coach, Bob Gordon, who worked outside of the district, the decision was made to cut the high school program and the paid coaching positions but keep the middle school team intact.
Knowing that not having a varsity program would likely kill interest in the younger athletes, a group that included people from the FR boosters and the Junior Olympic wrestling program went to the board with a proposal.
“It blindsided us, but we didn't want to take that lying down,” Colangelo said. “I gave a speech to the board and said that I'd be willing to coach the junior high team without pay, and our junior high head coach at the time would take over the varsity team. The boosters arranged it so that they would be able to pay him a salary.”
That arrangement suited the school board well enough to give the program a stay of execution for the upcoming year, and it wouldn't even take that long for its fortunes to rebound.
Around the same time, the school district hired Chad Roland, a newly graduated teacher from Duquesne University who also happened to be a member of the Dukes wrestling team. Roland, who is now the principal at Kiski Area High Schol, took on the varsity coaching job with the booster-sponsored paycheck and essentially began to rebuild the program from the ground up.
The next year, the school board reinstated the program's paid positions, but that was still no indicator of future success by the team. Roland did well to field competitive teams with many wrestlers who had limited experience, and in 2005, the team's current head coach, Eric Mausser, joined Roland's staff as an assistant.
“What I notice when I got here was that a good elementary and junior high program were in place, and that was starting to work its way up to varsity,” Mausser said.
“My first year was the year the football team went to the state championship, and (Roland) coached football, so my first month it was me and about eight kids working in the room until mid-December.”
Mausser took over the head coaching position two years later, in 2007-08, when Roland left to take an administrative position at Burrell. That same year, a freshman wrestler named Nico Megaludis put himself — and the FR program — on the map with Powerade Tournament and WPIAL titles and a third-place finish at states.
That Megaludis was the program's first major champion since its rebirth was fitting, as his father, Dan, was involved with the coaching in the Junior Olympic program and a major part of the movement to keep the team, seven years before.
“What the program is doing now is a credit to all the coaches that have been here at every level. Mr. Megaludis deserves a lot of credit for what he did to keep the program around for the young wrestlers at the time,” Colangelo said. “It's guys like that and the varsity coaches now that are so dedicated, it becomes contagious.”
The success of Nico Megaludis and other wrestlers near his age, such as Trevor Medlang and Andrew Farbarik, set an example for a new crop of middle schoolers who make up the current varsity roster, which currently boasts five state qualifiers, two Powerade champs and a WPIAL champ.
“When I started here (in 2007), the program was already pretty good and had a marquee wrestler in Nico,” Franklin Regional athletic director Zach Kessler said. “That brought a lot of attention to wrestling here.
“The program has been built up from the bottom. A lot of people in the community helped build the JO program, and we have great coaching at the high school with guys like Eric and (assistant coach) Ron Tarquinio.”
The task now for FR's program is to continue on its upward trend. With a county title in the books, the next team goals for the Panthers are section and WPIAL titles, both of which could come in the near future with the team's current depth.
“Look at our county championship. Last year, we had four champions and a runner-up, but this year, we had 10 place winners and six finalists, even though we only had three champs. It was a complete team effort,” Mausser said. “Now a section title and a WPIAL title are on our radar.”
Whatever the next few years hold for the Franklin Regional wrestling program, everyone involved with the team can be proud of helping it get to a far better place than it was in 2001.
“Like any good program, such as what (coach) Greg (Botta) does with our football team, the names will change, but the system is in place now for success,” Kessler said.
“I marvel at what it has become. You see five, six, seven kids in each class now that are going to be very good varsity wrestlers, and they have four guys there now that will probably get a full ride to wherever they want to go for college,” Colangelo said.
“My time in the program has come and gone, but it's good to feel like you played a small part of helping to keep this together.”
Matt Grubba is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-388-5830 or firstname.lastname@example.org.