By Jay Young
As head coach of the combined Westfield-Ripley-Chautauqua Lake wrestling team, which also includes Panama, Brad Rowe would have plenty of excuses to fall back on if his team had struggled during the 2013-14 season, but it didn't.
Westfield-Ripley-Chautauqua Lake wrestling coach Brad Rowe, right, seen with his brother and assistant, Ken, led the combined team to a division and class title this season.
Photo by Michelle Gilbert
On the contrary, Rowe's squad posted the finest season of any team in the area despite having to deal with all of the challenges that come along with trying to merge not two, but three different teams (Ripley no longer has a school, but the name was retained).
Combining the schedules of three different schools for an entire season of meets and practices would give most coaches the kind of headaches that can become a distraction, but Rowe has been able to exceed expectations across the board thanks to help from his assistant coaches.
In their second year together, the WRCL Panthers, the nickname adopted from Panama, captured the Section 6 Division 2 wrestling title with an unblemished 7-0 record and also won the Section 6 Class C team title after having five individual wrestlers place at the postseason tournament in Portville.
While WRCL certainly has a roster full of talented athletes to rely on for wins, Rowe's focused leadership and experience on the mat has also helped the program attain success in the face of adversity during such a short period of time.
"Brad does a very good job of not getting too emotional and too carried away. Some of the rest of us are more high-strung," said assistant coach Pete Dorman. "He tends to shy away from the accolades, he doesn't really want any of those and he is a very calm individual."
Watching the Panthers on the mat you get a sense that they perform so well because they don't panic in tough situations, and that poise is something that can be traced back to Rowe's coaching style.
"I think that his personality is a product of wrestling; he has been a state champion himself," mentioned Dorman.
A former All-American on the mat for SUNY Brockport, Rowe is as mild-mannered as any coach you will meet, and runs his team with a reserved passion for the sport that isn't just focused on wins and losses.
In his mind, building a team atmosphere from the coaching staff down is what helps kids become better wrestlers, and, ultimately, leads to success.
Putting together a group of assistants who know the sport and work well with one-another has made the transition to a combined team easier for WRCL.
"The assistants have come together as a team,'' Rowe said. ''There is a lot more going on (this year) in the organizational end, scheduling here and there and stuff like that. We have a lot of guys with wrestling knowledge and everyone of us works well together. You know the challenges were more of planning things (this year), but for the most part (the merger) was worth it. The kids get along really well. I think that wrestling is one of those sports that is a brotherhood. We're working out with our opponents during the offseason, so when you put them together as a team there is that common bond."
While Rowe was able to post an excellent season from a team standpoint, he is also very pleased with the progress that some of his individual athletes made throughout the year.
WRCL not only had experienced veterans make their way deep into the postseason, but also saw a number of wrestlers improve by leaps and bounds.
"We had quite a few boys do some good things this year,'' he said. ''We had five kids place at the sectional tournament and a lot of them are underclassmen. Nick Hudson lost to the eventual state champion of Amherst there. Tyler Furrow was making huge strides and improvement, Kale Gilbert and Mark Ektene were sophomores and placed, Bryce Rowe is an eighth-grader and took a sixth-place finish. We had some boys that stepped up and finished the year on fire.''
Also helping WRCL make its mark on the area wrestling scene is competition from other area squads that have dominated in years past. The Falconer Golden Falcons, Southwestern Trojans, Maple Grove Red Dragons and Fredonia Hillbillies have all had their time to shine in Section 6 wrestling over the past several decades.
Now that WRCL is making its push to become the best team from Chautauqua and Cattaraugus counties, it is facing plenty of strong competition from area teams, but that only seems to be making them better.
Knowing the history of wrestling success in the area gives Rowe a goal to shoot for and helps him motivate his wrestlers.
"It is one of those things where our area is becoming a wrestling area,'' he said. ''There is a great abundance of talent and kids who have gone to states. Fredonia and Falconer have been the powerhouses so that makes you want to push yourself. That competition is what drives you to get better and better.''
Having a team such as WRCL achieve an undefeated season in the face of organizational obstacles says a lot about the leadership of the team and also provides other squads with better competition during the season.
Having someone such as Rowe leading the Panthers isn't just good for the team, it is good for area wrestling. And that's why he is The Post-Journal Coach of The year.
WRCL's success also means that smaller teams don't have to worry about losing their programs due to low numbers. There are now other options on the table.