Sprawl or nothing

Editor’s note: This piece contains several inaccuracies and false assumptions. Please see this letter to the editor, which responds to and corrects several aspects of this article.

Title IX sanctions enforced by the NCAA require universities to maintain an equal distribution of male and female scholarship athletic programs. Adherence to these sanctions comes at the expense of sports such as wrestling, because universities cannot justify maintaining scholarships for such sports.

Mercer University’s club wrestling program was initially spared, residing within the parameters of Title IX inclusion. However, their stay was short lived, as football became a scholarship sport. Deprived of both a coach and adequate funding, what was once a large team of 20 has been reduced to a meager seven members, with two students serving as coaches.

Mercer’s team is part of the National Collegiate Wrestling Association. The majority of club organizations competing within the NCWA utilize university resources accessible to all students, making the clubs beyond the jurisdiction of the NCAA.

However, Mercer’s program had additional funds reserved specifically for athletes at its disposal. Prior to his departure in the fall of 2013, Head Coach Kevin Andres used these funds to cultivate a successful program.

In addition to his duties as the university’s director of campus life and recreational sports, Andres was responsible for coordinating practice and scheduling events for the wrestling team. During his time at Mercer, student participation in the program was incentivized by means of special interest scholarships awarded to prospective wrestlers who agreed to join the team upon enrolling at Mercer.

Zach Massey, a senior member of the wrestling team, chose to attend Mercer over a school such as the University of South Florida precisely because of Andres. University of South Florida along with a host of other club wrestling teams, were bereft of a vital aspect, which ultimately dissuaded Zach. Without a coach to motivate him, Zach did not believe he could ever achieve his full potential.

Another method Andres used to attract people to the program was a physical education course in wrestling. It generated interest among prospective wrestlers who were not already part of the program.

The program flourished with Andres at the helm. Mercer’s team had an impressive roster compared to other NCWA teams. Complete with two wrestlers for every weight class and many All-Americans, at its height, the program had over 20 members.

The meticulous training and exhaustive efforts of the team showed on the mats, where the team finished sixth in the NCWA national rankings in the spring of 2013. Aspirations to compete in the NCAA were no longer inconceivable. With sustained success, the program could have been considered for promotion.

Mercer Football did not initially jeopardize the wrestling scholarship funds. The Pioneer League in which Mercer first competed did not permit the endowment of athletic scholarships.

It was not until after the football team transitioned into the Southern Conference, which does confer athletic scholarships, that the wrestling program lose its financial privilege.

This placed the wrestling team beyond the parameters of Title IX sanctions.

Andres then had to compensate for reduced funds to keep wrestlers competing while simultaneously attending to his campus duties. The demands ultimately proved too much, and Andres left Mercer to coach at Ottawa University in Kansas.

With Andres gone, the wrestling elective course was discontinued, depriving the team of yet another liable means of recruitment.

Despite having yet to find a suitable replacement for Andres, the team resolved to continue competing. Currently comprised of five wrestlers and two student coaches, the program has experienced a significant decline from the 20 wrestlers it once had.

A former assistant of Andres assumed the role of interim coach following Andres’ departure. He too had obligations outside the program, which limited the flexibility of devising a practice schedule.

6:30 a.m. was the only time that worked. The time was neither conducive for academics nor wrestling, said Ty Downer, a junior. “It’s hard to practice wrestling in the morning for a number of reasons. For one the gym is not warm enough. The heaters get cut off and its 35 or 40 degrees in the room, the mats harden. There’s not a lot of time to properly sanitize after a practice if you have an 8 a.m. class to attend.”

A less orderly practice conducted at an inconvenient time discouraged wrestlers formerly committed to the program. Waning confidence in the program combined with nagging injuries drove others to quit.

Despite all this, the program did its best to prosper. The team of seven wrestlers finished third in the national rankings of the NCWA for 2014.

Unfortunately, the success was not enough to retain the interim coach, and once again the team was left in search of leadership. Both Downer and Massey are upperclassmen with extensive wrestling backgrounds and familiarity with Andres’ teaching methods.

Unable to compete due to injury, the two began coaching. Downer is now Head Coach and Vice President, while Massey is Assistant Coach and President of the team.

United by a common goal to reign supreme upon the mat, this group of individuals’ acts as a family, redefining the term “tough love.” A family that prioritizes discipline and exemplifies class in their affairs should not have to question just where exactly they will call home next fall, and yet this is the dilemma facing the wrestling team.

Included in the expansion efforts of the university is the demolition of East Hall, where the mats currently reside. The university has yet to offer an alternative space to the store the mats. If this issue is not addressed promptly, the program may very well be lost.

Within SoCon, there are wrestling teams currently competing at the NCAA Division 1 level.

Jamal Reynolds, a junior on the team, believes the Bears could have been a division one wrestling team under the tutelage of Andres.

“If Kevin would’ve stayed, we would definitely be headed towards the Division 1 ranks,” said Reynolds. “Once you establish yourself in the NCWA as a top-notch program complete with a full time coach and the necessary facilities, it’s only a matter of time before you transition into Division 1 or Division 2.”

For this to happen, the team would need a replacement for Andres.

Although Downer has been well received as a coach by the NCWA, no amount of endorsement can change the perception of a student-led wrestling team.

“I can say I am a coach all day long, but that still doesn’t lend me the credentials that make me credible in the eyes of recruits,” said Downer.

At an NCWA tournament in January, Massey attended a coaches meeting concerning the state of the league. In this meeting the executive director of the NCWA said that if a club or program does not have any form of leadership, it is likely to decline.

Massey agreed, saying, “That’s exactly what’s happened to us.”