By BOB ETTINGER
For the Star Beacon
ASHTABULA TOWNSHIP —
Wes Cleveland has spent more nearly three quarters of his life as a member of the Edgewood wrestling family. Greg Stolfer was at the head of the Warriors’ program for every one of those years before stepping down after last season.
Cleveland, 40, was tabbed as the man to sit at the head of the table, the only man other than Stolfer to head the program in 28 seasons. He spent the six years between seventh grade and graduation as a member of the team. While he was in college, he made his way back to the mats to help the grapplers in the classes behind him before officially becoming a member of the coaching staff.
“I’m grateful for the opportunity to do it, really,” Cleveland said of following Stolfer. “I work outside the school district, so I’m blessed to have an employer who allows me to do it.
“This is my 16th year (as a coach). I spent three years at the junior high and 12 with Greg. Edgewood wrestling’s been a part of me that long. Even after I’d graduated, I still came back to help out. It’s been a part of me for quite a long time now.”
The transition from active wrestler to member of the staff was not easy for Cleveland.
“I never thought I’d be a coach,” he said. “When I first started, it was difficult. All of a sudden, I was coaching with my coach.”
In a way, coaching was always in Cleveland’s mind, even if being the head of the program wasn’t.
“In high school, I hoped I could find some way to coach,” he said. “I first thought of being an industrial arts teacher. That’s what interested me.
“I can’t recall ever wanting to take over for Greg. Like anything in life, you start doing it and all of a sudden, 10 or 15 years has gone by.”
During his 27-year tenure, Stolfer built a perennial winner and set some pretty high standards for success. He is still widely loved by the vast majority of his former wrestlers, who still come back to help the program and their former coach.
Stepping into those shoes is not necessarily easy. However, that wasn’t what initially gave Cleveland trouble in taking over the team.
“I can’t say I’ve felt burdened by that,” Cleveland said. “The bigger issues haven’t bother me. What bothered me a little was the locker he used was a little bigger than mine. That was his locker. He never took anything home. His stuff was in that locker year round.
“The first time I had seen that locker cleaned out, I went home to talk to Michelle (Cleveland’s wife) and told her I couldn’t use the locker because it was his locker. After a few weeks, it was just a locker.”
The transition from assistant to head coach has been made a little easier by the retirement of long-time athletic director Dave Melaragno.
“It’s a little different, too, because there’s a new AD (Steve Kray),” Cleveland said. “It’s the same principal (Karl Williamson), but it would maybe be a little different feel if Melaragno were still the AD. The whole thing kind of seems like a whole new adventure.”
In that way, taking over the program has been enjoyable for Cleveland.
“It’s exciting,” he said. “Greg and I always worked well with each other. A lot of times during a match, we’d be saying the same thing at the same time. That happened really frequently.”
Spending as long as he has in the program, Cleveland understands what made Stolfer and his wrestlers successful. He won’t toy with the formula too much. But he will also make some adjustments based on his observations while with the team.
“There are things I noticed the kids might not enjoy as much,” he said. “I tweaked some things. We’ll see how they respond.”
Cleveland was able to tip-toe into the position, with a good deal of time from when Stolfer retired and when he was named coach.
“To be hired, there’s a process you have to go through,” Cleveland said. “First, they have to post it for the teachers. None wanted it, so I applied and went through the interview process.
“Through the summer, I tried to keep open mats going so the kids had a place to come in and do things. After the hiring (in the fall), I was finally able to tell Michelle I was officially hired.
“I eased into it through the summer. It was an easier transition that way, instead of showing up on the first day I was allowed to start coaching.”
Michelle Cleveland is, and always has been, in full support of her husband and high school sweetheart’s progression through the ranks.
“Through my whole career, she’s been really proud of me,” Cleveland said. “I can recall when I first was considering the job at the junior high. I told her I was interested and she said I was ready something like this. She’s been right with me. Wrestling is as much a part of her life as it is mine.”
On cue, Michelle Cleveland spoke up.
“Before we even got married, I knew wrestling would always be a part of my life,” she said. “I can’t imagine life without it.”
Michelle isn’t the only Cleveland who would be proud of Wes, the son of Donna and Dwayne, who passed away in 2008.
“My dad was probably my best friend,” Cleveland said. “I think he would have been pretty proud.”
That may have been understating it a little.
“He would have been extremely proud,” Michelle Cleveland said.
Cleveland appreciates his wife’s support, as well as that of everyone in the school district.
“It’s a tremendous help to have backing in your own house,” he said. “I’ve felt even with the administration I’ve got a lot support. I haven’t felt uneased by the transition. I’ve felt I’ve had support all the way.”
Cleveland’s first season at the helm has been a bit rough.
Injuries have taken their toll as three starters have missed considerable time already and two of them may not return this season.
“I don’t look at it as doubts (about what I have gotten myself into),” Cleveland said. “The numbers are down. All programs go through it. I didn’t picture it would be as drastic as it was this year.”
Cleveland knows what it means to be a wrestler at Edgewood and he understands that’s the reason Stolfer was able to build the program the way he did.
“A wrestling team is a big family,” Cleveland said. “You grind it out every day with your partner for four months out of the year. Sometimes, you need to shed a pound or two and you get a little surly. (When you’re away) you miss out on that. The kids do believe in that extra family.
“It’s a feeling of belonging to something bigger than just themselves.”
In that regard, Cleveland is the perfect man to head the program.
That family feeling also played a bit of a role in him taking the job.
“That’s a part of it,” Cleveland said. “When you’ve done something that long, it’s more loyalty to the sport and and the passion you have for the sport. To this day, it’s still fun getting on the mat and wrestling. I get that feeling back.
“I get to teach the sport I love to others and help them be successful. In the end, if they truly love the sport the way I do, ultimately, they will learn something from the experience they’ve gone through.”
In replacing Stolfer, Cleveland won’t try to be Stolfer. But he will also use what he learned from his mentor and pass it along.
“I learned a lot listening to Greg,” Cleveland said. “There was something about Greg. I won’t try to replicate the way he made decisions. He knew what to do and he stuck with it.
“Something I will try to do is truly love the sport and truly love the kids. When you’re with somebody that long, it’s not all about wrestling. When he needed to, he wouldn’t hesitate to pull kids aside and help them learn, even if they were having problems at home or made a mistake. They learned from it because of him.”
Cleveland doesn’t feel the need to put his own signature on the Warriors.
“I can’t pinpoint something I’d do different (than Stolfer),” he said. “Through all the years, he always kept the program consistently at the top tier. I go more by feeling than by repetition. I get a feel for the kdis and if they’re not in the mood for drilling, then we’ll go to more situational-type stuff with 10 to 30-second starts to simulate matches.
“As far as conditioning, a lot of the stuff we’ve done for years has worked. I don’t look at it like it’s something I’ve got to put a stamp on.
“I still consider it Edgewood wrestling. It’s about the individual kids. What makes one successful might not work for another. My goal is to give them the basics and try to make every individual kid successful.”
Cleveland will always be open to help from Stolfer, but on his old coach’s terms.
“I called on him for a few things,” Cleveland said. “He’s pretty busy. He’s always welcome. I know he walked away and he needed to walk away. I haven’t tried to pull him back in.
“He will always be there if the program needs anything and I’m sure he’ll help out.”
The transition from assistant to head coach has been made easier in that the Warriors know Cleveland quite well.
“I think it helps the have all seen me for years,” he said. “That’s made it easier for them.”
In order to help the numbers in the program, Cleveland, who has two daughters, Amber, 13, and Brittany, 11, isn’t shy about using an asset close to home.
“I have the support of my kids, too,” he said. “I use Amber as a recruiting tool. I have her recruit kids for me. I got know a lot of kids through my own kids as they were growing up in the community.”
Just as wrestling is a part of Michelle Cleveland’s life, it is also a part of Amber Cleveland’s.
“She keeps score at the junior high,” Wes Cleveland said. “She’s busy with dance, but she helps out.”
Ettinger is a freelance writer from Ashtabula.