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Eastern Wrestling League losing ground

| Sunday, Feb. 26, 2006

At a time when wrestling is making a small comeback nationally, the Eastern Wrestling League is struggling to keep up with the sport's growing power conferences.

The EWL is losing recruiting wars it used to win -- especially in Western Pennsylvania -- and the results are showing up on the mat.

"I think the league is down," Edinboro assistant coach Lou Rosselli said. "Twenty years ago, Pitt was better, West Virginia was better, Clarion was better. It was harder then, because everybody was a little bit better."

Of the seven teams in the EWL, only Edinboro (12-0) and Bloomsburg (11-9) finished the 2005-06 dual-meet season with winning records. Traditional powers West Virginia and Pitt went 6-6 and 4-9, respectively. Neither Cleveland State (6-8) nor Lock Haven (6-13) made much of an impact.

The gap between the teams at the top and bottom of the standings has never been wider. Edinboro and last-place Clarion have proud traditions but have been heading in opposite directions for years.

This season, Edinboro was the only Division I team in the country to finish with a perfect record. Clarion lost all 17 of its dual meets.

Edinboro's returning All-American is ranked No. 1 in the country in his weight class. Clarion's returning All-American was declared academically ineligible.

Edinboro's Tim Flynn will be feted as the league's coach of the year. Clarion coach Ken Nellis already has submitted his resignation.

"Right now," Nellis said with a sigh, "we're going through a difficult time."

Clarion, which has produced All-Americans Wade Schalles and Kurt Angle, won back-to-back EWL titles in 1994 and '95. But since the 2002-03 season, Clarion has gone 16-46-1 in dual meets and has finished sixth at the EWL tourney three consecutive times.

Nellis, who took over the program in 1997, was agonizing about the program's downward spiral even before this season began. Two weeks, ago, he went to athletic director Dave Katis and said it was time for a change.

"I'm very competitive and I can't stand losing," said Nellis, a Shaler native and Clarion alumnus. "It's hard for me to see this program just plodding along. New leadership might give this program new legs and get it headed back in the right direction."

Losing bids and teams

The annual EWL championships are this weekend at Edinboro. From there, 35 wrestlers -- the top three finishers in each weight class, plus five wild-card selections -- will advance to the NCAA Championships March 16-18 in Oklahoma City.

The EWL's bid total is the third-highest among the 13 leagues that send wrestlers to nationals. However, the EWL's allotment has shrunk significantly over the past few years.

In 1999, the EWL received 41 bids to nationals. That number slipped to 39 in 2000, 38 in '03, 37 in '04 and 36 last year.

The allocation of NCAA bids is determined by a formula that takes into account the amount of top-12 finishers each league produces at the national championships in the previous year.

Last year, the EWL came up with five All-Americans -- Shawn Bunch of Edinboro, Drew Headlee of Pitt, Matt Lebe and Greg Jones of West Virginia, and Chris Horning of Clarion. Jones, a Greensburg Salem product, won his third national title and was named the tournament's most outstanding wrestler, the sport's version of the Heisman Trophy.

This year, Bunch, who was the runner-up in '05 at 133 pounds, is expected to be back in the finals. Lebe (of Jeannette High School) also is having a strong season. But Headlee injured his wrist over the summer and had to sit out this season. Horning, a junior, was sidelined by poor grades.

As the EWL is slumping, the Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association has surged. The 13-team EIWA, which includes Rutgers, Army, Navy and Ivy League schools, got 26 berths in the national tourney in 1999. This year, it will receive 44.

The Colonial Athletic Association and the Mid-American Conference also have grown in recent seasons, adding to their automatic bids.

The Big Ten, the dominant conference in college wrestling, received 72 of the 330 bids handed out for nationals. When it added Penn State to its stable in 1993, the move hurt the EWL.

Penn State captured 14 EWL championships, including 11 in a row from 1982-92. This season, the Nittany Lions (13-4) are ranked No. 8 in the country and have nine wrestlers rated among the top 20 in their weight classes.

"When Penn State jumped, that had an impact on the EWL," said former Clarion coach Bob Bubb. "That's a national-name school leaving the league. It always drew big crowds."

Penn State is not the only team to bolt the EWL. Virginia Tech's squad left when the school moved to the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2004.

Recruiting is key

It has been suggested that the EWL's downturn is merely cyclical and will reverse course naturally over time.

"I don't think so," Bubb said. "High schools, maybe you can say that. But not colleges, because you have the ability to (recruit) wrestlers. It's a matter of going out and using your (scholarship) money. If you do your homework, you can build your program."

Bubb guided Clarion during its glory years from 1966 to 1992. When the team joined the EWL in 1976, he led it to a second-place finish. He recruited Angle out of Mt. Lebanon and helped him blossom into a two-time national champion.

Bubb also developed other talented wrestlers who weren't all-everything guys in high school. He did it by outfoxing and outworking other coaches -- luring the runner-up at the PIAA tournament or going hard after the Class AA champ while everyone else talked about the AAA winner.

"I don't think the quality of wrestling in Pennsylvania has fallen off," Bubb said. "In fact, it might have gotten better. But with that comes a recruiting feeding frenzy of college coaches. It's hard to find a sleeper anymore."

Poor recruiting, Bubb said, is the reason for Clarion's downfall. It's hurting the other EWL programs, too.

In 2005, for the second year in a row, Pennsylvania produced 12 All-Americans -- more than any other state. There is always a large group of former WPIAL standouts in the NCAA tournament.

"Hands down, the best high school wrestling in the country is in Pennsylvania," Oklahoma coach Jack Spates said. "It starts with the tradition there. There's great coaching, great passion, great wrestling."

Spates has three Pennsylvania natives on his roster, including freshman Jarrod King of Connellsville. King's older brother, Matt, was an All-American two years ago at Edinboro.

The top senior on Connellsville's team this season, Ashtin Primus, accepted a scholarship offer from Missouri.

"Some of those (EWL) programs have lost their competitiveness," Connellsville coach Tom Dolde Jr. said. "I'd love to see our kids stay local, but you can't pass up an opportunity like Oklahoma or Missouri."

Lehigh, a member of the EIWA, has always been a wrestling power. But it soared to the upper echelon after netting a recruiting class in 2001 that included four Pennsylvania wrestlers -- highlighted by Troy Letters of Shaler.

Other former WPIAL wrestlers dot the map. Coleman Scott (Waynesburg) is at Oklahoma State. Jake Herbert (North Allegheny) and Will Durkee (Shady Side Academy) are at Northwestern. Sean Clair (Plum) is at Eastern Michigan. Steve Bell (Connellsville) is at Maryland. When Primus arrives at Missouri, he'll work out with Andrew Sherry (Pittsburgh Central Catholic).

"It's not as big a deal now to go someplace like Missouri," Nellis said. "The world is shrinking, and it's shrinking for wrestling too."

No razzle-dazzle

Some coaches say recruits might be turned off by the EWL's mostly small, isolated campuses. This weekend, nearly all of the teams competing in the league tournament opted to stay in hotels in Erie, a half-hour's drive away, rather than bunk somewhere closer to Edinboro's campus.

The quality of training facilities and coaching staffs plays a big role in recruiting. Clarion has not upgraded its facilities in years. A majority of Pitt's meets are competed in aging Fitzgerald Field House.

Many programs around the country try to dazzle recruits by hiring brand-name coaches and assistants.

"A guy who comes out of college as a national champion doesn't want to go to someplace like Edinboro to be a assistant," said Dolde, who wrestled collegiately for West Virginia. "He wants to go someplace big and established."

Spates was an assistant coach at Pitt for one season, the worked at West Point and Cornell before landing at Oklahoma. Robbie Waller, a Latrobe native and former national champ at Oklahoma, is a former assistant at Missouri and joined Spates' staff this year.

Hoping to lure recruits, Virginia Tech built an all-star staff that consists of former Olympic gold medal winner Tom Brands and three assistants who have a combined nine All-American finishes and two national championships.

"Our league is OK, but it's not the Big Ten, the Big 12 or even the Ivy League," said Rosselli, the lone EWL coach with Olympic experience. "There are a lot of things that don't bode in our favor."

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