Eli Ruiz | Democrat
Hosting the prestigious Eastern States Wrestling Tournament for the last nine years proved to be a major impetus for SUNY Sullivan launching a wrestling program in fall 2013. Hundreds of participants, coaches and spectators descend on the Paul Gerry Fieldhouse every year for the two-day event.
By Eli Ruiz
LOCH SHELDRAKE January 25 For the ninth consecutive year, SUNY Sullivan played host to the Eastern States Wrestling Tournament two weeks ago at the Paul Gerry Fieldhouse.
Integral to bringing the annual tournament to the college, SUNY Sullivan athletic director Chris DePew said that this year's tournament which attracted hundreds of athletes and fans from across the state doubled as “a launch event for our new wrestling team."
Yes, SUNY Sullivan will be fielding its first ever wrestling team this fall as part of DePew’s grand plan to make SUNY Sullivan the best junior college athletic program in the country.
To hear DePew tell it, "about nine years ago, six years into my taking the AD position, I received a random call from Dan Wernikoff [Wernikoff is president of the Friends of Section IX group]." DePew continued, "Dan had started a wrestling tournament called the Eastern Classic and after a few years holding the tournament at Orange County Community College (OCCC) he said he'd run into some roadblocks."
In truth, according to DePew, the tournament was looking to expand and didn't have the space to do so at OCCC." After meeting with Wernikoff, it was decided that Sullivan would make a very nice venue for the tournament and could facilitate its plans to expand. The SUNY Sullivan fieldhouse can fit up to nine mats.
Beginning in 2004, SUNY Sullivan became home to the Eastern States Wrestling Tournament. "For the first few years of the tournament we were just trying to get our feet wet and figuring out how to hold the best tournament we possibly could," offered DePew.
Another group with deep wrestling ties called "Beat the Streets" would come into the picture and shake things up at SCCC. DePew describes Beat the Streets as a grass- roots wrestling initiative comparable to golf’s First Tee program which endeavors to bring golf into inner-city areas. Beat the Streets does the same thing for wrestling.
“The folks at Beat the Streets have a very close relationship with Friends of Section IX and we [SCCC] developed a rather close relationship with both groups," explainedDePew. “So around tournament time each year [Beat the Streets] would come by and really push the idea of starting a new wrestling program here at the college.
But there were stumbling blocks facing DePew most notably the initial startup costs and housing the new students. "I really needed to see how a new wrestling program would fit into our mission as a college. I needed to see how this was all going to work," admitted DePew.
“The biggest obstacle by far, though, were the huge costs involved with starting an entirely new wrestling program. Just the mere purchase of a mat can run anywhere between $9,000 and $12,000 alone,” added DePew.
The mat dilemma was solved when Beat the Streets started offering summer camps at the college a few years back. They offered to purchase a mat in SUNY Sullivan’s school colors that the college could store and keep.
“That was the kind of the big nugget they threw out there for us to start a program of our own," explained
With the mat issue behind him, DePew had to find out who SUNY Sullivan would wrestle.
"I needed to know who [of the national junior colleges] had programs, how can I get a schedule and those sorts of things," said DePew.
Through his research, DePew found that there were about 20 junior college wrestling programs in the nation, with the nearest program located at Nassau Community College in Long Island. "Another thing I realized, said DePew, was that a lot of these kids with Beat the Streets were going off to Nassau. But there are only so many spots [at Nassau], so you know they're looking for other options."
Beside DePew's obvious concerns, the college at the time was going through a transition period as longtime president Dr. Mamie Golladay was winding down her tenure.
"She [Golladay] was supportive of the initiative but she had a lot of the same questions I had," said DePew.
With the summer wrestling camps a huge success, DePew saw his opening to approach the new president, William Mirabito about starting the wrestling program. His angle would be increasing enrollment.
It was at this point that DePew came up with a very ambitious proposal not just for a wrestling program, but for the implementation of a three-phase, three year plan, to add six entirely new sports programs to SUNY Sullivan's repertoire, including women’s volleyball, men’s and women’s soccer, men’s lacrosse and women’s softball.
DePew estimated that the new sports would bring 100 additional full-time students to the college students who would have never considered Sullivan.
An eager DePew then began to pitch the proposal to the faculty counsel, to the college's Board of Trustees, and as he says, "just about anyone who would listen. In the end we got a lot of buy-in here at the college and at that point we decided to move forward with it," states DePew.
In the end, says DePew, he was given full authority to move forward with phase one of the plan which called for the addition of a wrestling team and a women's volleyball team by fall of this year.
"So I put in the call to Friends of Section IX and Beat the Streets and let them know that I'd finally put it all together and that the college had agreed to move forward with the plan and make this wrestling team happen. They were absolutely thrilled about it, and so, here we are," says DePew enthusiastically.
Asked about the issue of housing, DePew explained, "The college is completely committed, through the administrative offices, to find alternate housing through working with some of the local landowners that are refurbishing their properties and we're also working with the Howard Johnson's in Liberty, with whom we worked with this past fall when we had a bit of an overflow of students. So we've got a lot of options out there that don't involve the huge expense of building new dormitories."
As for a coaching staff for the colleges fledgling wrestling program, DePew says, "We're going to start out with just a head coach and an assistant and we're currently in the process of accepting resumes for the opening." DePew said that in the next few weeks, the process of searching for a coach will be ramped up.
"We really want to have a head wrestling coach hired by mid-February. The new coach will be paid a small stipend to recruit as hard as he possibly can from now until August 31," said DePew, who indicated the new coach will officially begin his full-tme duties on September 1.
As the seeds that were planted back in 2004 come to fruition at SUNY Sullivan, DePew, always with an eye toward the future says, "I think that down the road we're really going to be a power in these areas, I think we'll be as strong as anyone out there. I just couldn't be more excited about this."
He’s not the only one. Fallsburg athletic director and wrestling co-coach said, "I truly believe that a new wrestling program at SUNY Sullivan will have an imensely positive impact on Sullivan County wrestling as a whole.
“It's right here in our own backyard and I have two kids [Dominique Vales and Roosevelt Payton] who wrestled for me last year who are currently freshman at Sullivan who are looking to wrestle for the program in the fall."
Bult explained that as seniors at Fallsburg last year, Vales and Payton attended the Eastern States Wrestling Tournament with him as spectators. "I struck up a conversation with Mr. DePew and when he let us know that they were starting a new wrestling program, the kids faces just lit up. They were really excited about the prospect and now they're both freshman there. I think it’s a very exciting and positive thing Chris is doing there."