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EWL grapples with uncertain future

| Sunday, Feb. 26, 2012

Tim Flynn won two Eastern Wrestling League individual titles and four team championships during his career at Penn State from 1983-87.

As head coach at Edinboro for the past 15 years, Flynn has guided the Fighting Scots to 12 tournament titles in the EWL, the eight-team, Division I wrestling home to such local schools at Pitt, West Virginia, Clarion and Edinboro.

With the impending moves of West Virginia to the Big 12 and Pitt to the Atlantic Coast Conference, Flynn doesn't want to see his Fighting Scots without a home. He also doesn't want to see the EWL, a quirky, relic of a conference that pits Division II schools against BCS behemoths, dissolve.

But unless the remaining teams find a home or new schools to add, the EWL could be the next conference to feel the effects of superconferences in the NCAA.

"I competed in the EWL a long time ago, and I've coached for many years in the EWL," Flynn said. "It would be sad if the league dissolved, so to speak, but things change. I understand that. I would like to see it in some way or another — even if it's a dual meet format — stay intact."

The EWL formed in 1976 with six members: Penn State, Pitt, Buffalo, Bloomsburg, Clarion and Lock Haven. West Virginia and Cleveland State joined two years later, and Edinboro came aboard in 1989.

Significant change has rocked the EWL before — Penn State, a 14-time team tournament champion, left after the 1991-92 season — but this game of musical chairs threatens to shake the league in a way no other coming-and-going has before.

According to EWL commissioner Bruce Baumgartner, the league faces four scenarios, none more likely than another. The only unavoidable truth is that something will need to be done; it's simply a matter of what and when.

"There are a lot of questions out there," said Baumgartner, an Olympic gold medalist at the 1984 Los Angeles and 1992 Barcelona Games and currently Edinboro's director of athletics. "And there aren't a whole lot of answers."

What could happen

The first scenario Baumgartner outlined has the EWL's remaining five teams — after Pitt and West Virginia are gone — joining an existing conference, most likely the MAC, which has six wrestling schools.

"We have had some discussions and serious conversations of possibly becoming either an affiliate and joining the MAC or qualifying with the MAC in some sort," Baumgartner said.

A MAC official said the conference does not comment on league expansion.

Clarion athletics director Dave Katis said all possibilities have to be examined.

"We're taking a look at a bunch of different options,'' Katis said. "We have to. This is reality. Pitt and West Virginia are going to leave, and we need to figure out where we need to go and what we need to do.

"We're hoping that (the MAC is) going to consider us for associate membership, and then this ends the whole thing. That's our option right now. If that option fails, then we'll take a look at what other conference might be able to take us in as a Division I member. Right now that's what we're taking a look at, but we're keeping all of our options open."

A second option would be to allow the two schools to leave and become a five-team conference, although this would be unpopular among coaches because the EWL would no longer be an automatic qualifier for the NCAA tournament. It's also something they won't have to combat until Pitt leaves.

One scenario that has been batted around nationally and could save the EWL is regionalization, in which conferences are condensed and the wrestling makeup would differ greatly from the NCAA's football composition.

This, Baumgartner said, would be boon for wrestling schools nationwide.

"This regionalization, for the sport of wrestling, would probably make it a little bit more secure than it is right now," he said.

The fourth possibility — outside of a complete dissolution of the EWL — is adding teams, which Baumgartner said was possible, but, "I think discussions haven't been far enough along to really identify any particular names," he said.

A wild card in the EWL's fate would be whether Pitt leaves for the ACC in 2012-13, something that doesn't appear likely but still is being taken seriously by Baumgartner and EWL schools.

"The catalyst would be if Pitt came up to us next week and said, 'Oh, by the way, we're gone next year,' " Baumgartner said. "We would have a lot more stress and a lot more urgency to make that decision."

EWL, please don't go

Coaches contacted for this story declined to discuss specifics of the EWL's future, deferring to Baumgartner as the point man. However, the consensus went something like this: The EWL has been an integral part of the programs' development; they're confident the league isn't on the verge of extinction; and Baumgartner, with input from coaches and athletic directors, will figure out a way to make it work.

"As a league, I think we're doing our part to be proactive," said Clarion coach Matt Dernlan. "Whether it's adding teams to keep the EWL intact, we've always been proactive and tried to put some feelers out to some different conferences to see if we can join them as affiliate members.

"I'm not nervous right now. I think we're doing what we should be doing and taking responsibility for the situation we're in instead of sitting back and seeing how our hand plays out."

Craig Turnbull jokes about when he took over the West Virginia program 33 years ago. Back then, Turnbull said, basketballs used to bounce into the team's practice room, and snow would blow through the doors — hardly an elite training facility.

Five EWL titles and four coach of the year awards later, Turnbull spearheaded a $1.4 million project to create the WVU Wrestling Pavilion, which includes four mats, an aerobic room, coaches' offices and a study center with a player lounge.

"When we were admitted into the Eastern Wrestling League, that gave us an opportunity to start setting some serious goals for the program and bring a serious wrestling culture to West Virginia," Turnbull said. "The Eastern Wrestling League really was a huge part of us becoming a solid program."

Turnbull also hopes to keep as many EWL schools on the Mountaineers' schedule as possible, no matter what happens with the conference.

"We would have never been able to make the strides that we did without the help of the Eastern Wrestling League," Turnbull said.

Rande Stottlemyer began coaching at Pitt the same year Turnbull arrived in Morgantown, W.Va. And even though Stottlemyer knows his team's move to the ACC won't be a bad thing — three of its six teams are ranked in the top 25 — he'll still miss the EWL.

After all, what other league transcends divisions and conferences and instead banks on regional rivalries, especially in the current state of big money conferences ruling all?

"Hopefully the EWL can sustain itself, although I'm not sure exactly how that's all going to happen," Stottlemyer said. "You look at the landscape of college athletics, and, man, sometimes you're like 'holy smokes.' "

"We're really good at what we do in this state, and wrestling is a staple," Stottlemyer added. "It's pretty dang good, and there's a lot of tradition, but I guess change is inevitable."

Additional Information:

EWL champs

The EWL has been one of the top wrestling league's in the country since its inception. Here is a list of national champions the league has produced:

1984: Carl DeStefanis, Penn State • 118 pounds

1984: Scott Lynch, Penn State • 134

1985: Rick Bonomo, Bloomsburg ? 118

1986: Rick Bonomo, Bloomsburg • 118

1987: Rick Bonomo, Bloomsburg ? 118

1988: Jim Martin, Penn State • 126

1988: Pat Santoro, Pittsburgh • 142

1989: Pat Santoro, Pittsburgh • 142

1989: Sean O'Day, Edinboro ? 134

1990: Kurt Angle, Clarion • Heavyweight

1991: Jeff Prescott, Penn State • 118

1992: Kurt Angle, Clarion • Heavyweight

1992: Jeff Prescott, Penn State • 118

1992: Scott Collins, West Virginia • 142

1994: Dean Morrison, West Virginia ? 177

1996: Sheldon Thomas, Clarion • 118

1996: Cary Kolat, Lock Haven • 134

1997: Cary Kolat, Lock Haven • 142

2001: Josh Koscheck, Edinboro • 174

2002: Greg Jones, West Virginia • 174

2004: Greg Jones, West Virginia • 184

2005: Greg Jones, West Virginia • 184

2007: Gregor Gillespie, Edinboro • 149

2008: Keith Gavin, Pittsburgh • 174

2009: Jarrod King, Edinboro • 165

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