By JAMIE BAKER
BLOOMDALE — For Elmwood wrestling coach Dave Lee, the number of dual match wins he has isn’t the first thing on his mind when he’s in the chair matside.
Lee’s focus is always on his wrestlers.
He’s always there urging them on to give him, and the Elmwood program, everything they have in each six-minute match.
The culmination of all of those individual wins in dual meets over the past 29 years have certainly added up.
The Royals stopped McComb, 75-3, and Van Buren, 69-12, in dual matches Friday night as Lee became the first Ohio prep wrestling coach in history to win his 500th career dual match.
Already Ohio’s all-time leader in dual-match wins, Friday’s two victories gave Lee a career record of 500-211. Second on the list is current Maple Heights head coach Jamie Milkovich who was 434-117-1 through last season.
In an age where schools are seemingly looking for head coaches for various sports every year, Lee has been a mainstay at Elmwood ever since taking over the school’s wrestling program during the 1987-88 season.
In fact, Lee is the longest-tenured head coach among the 112 schools with wrestling in the Northwest District.
“It comes down to longevity. My first two years we had losing records and only won like 12 matches,” Lee said.
“Then we started to get things rolling. We don’t wrestle as many duals as some schools do. I think one year Genoa won 46 duals. The most we’ve ever won in a season was 23 when we were 23-1.
“We feel we have a good balance for our team with dual meets and bracketed tournaments to help us get better as a team and prepare us for the postseason. The biggest thing we’ve tried to do is get as many kids as much mat experience as possible.”
Lee, a 1978 Elmwood graduate who will almost-certainly be inducted into the Ohio High School Wrestling Coaches Association Hall of Fame, was mentored when he was in high school and college by a coach already in the shrine in Elmwood grad and former Olmsted Falls coach Bill McGrain.
“It was Bill McGrain who got me headed in the right direction when I was in high school,” Lee said.
Lee followed McGrain to Southwestern Michigan Community College and then wrestled three years at Grand Valley State. He coached for McGrain at Apple Creek Waynedale and went to Bluffton for one year. He coached for three or four years in Michigan before coming back home to become the head coach at his alma mater.
In his 29 years as Elmwood’s head wrestling coach, Lee’s teams have won 10 league championships and have had just four losing seasons.
One of the keys to the program’s success has been numbers and the ability of Lee, who retired as a teacher last spring, to get Elmwood’s students to walk into the wrestling room and give the sport a try.
That’s especially true today when the number of wrestlers involved are seemingly down throughout the region.
“I always have liked the sport and wanted to give back to it. It’s a rough sport that attracts some rough kids in some cases but I like it,” said Lee who typically has between 20-30 wrestlers on the squad.
“I try and get every kid I can to at least try it out. We try and work with the kids without much talent, we try and make the weakest link stronger because it makes us stronger as a team.
“Kids come out and work hard for us. We try to beg, plead, borrow and promise, and then, we try and fulfill those promises by getting every kid 15 or 20 matches even if they are second and third string. That seems to keep kids coming out.”
Lee’s formula has worked. He’s coached three state champs and had dozens of state qualifiers and placers in his 29 seasons including his sons Trevor, Westley, Mitchell and Dexter.
While Lee still has much of the enthusiasm he has when he first started coaching, some things have changed as he’s gotten older.
“I think I still have the passion, the only thing I don’t do anymore as much as I used to is get out there and wrestle a lot,” said Lee, who has started a lawn care business in his retirement. “Maybe at the end of my late 40s I got down to wrestling about 60 percent of the time and now I’m down to 15 percent. I just don’t want to get busted up because I want to be able to walk when I’m 65 and that’s only nine years away.”
The school has two wrestling schedules and Lee couldn’t have built the program over the years without a lot of help.
His top assistant Brian Endicott, one of Lee’s former wrestlers, runs practice much of the time. Other Elmwood assistant coaches Rich Delamatre, Dexter Lee, Sean Dong and Alex Jasso are willing to split contracts to coach at the school.
“I’ll keep on sacrificing and like it because everyone else is sacrificing, too. I couldn’t do this with only one coach because I don’t have the energy anymore,” Lee said.
“That’s I think our coaching staff is awesome because we work with those kids that might not currently be starters and are always telling them not to give up. Those are the type of kids you may need in your program down the road.”
Lee says he’s making no promises about how long he’s going to stick around as the school’s head coach any further then past next season.
He does know he still has a passion for wrestling, and more importantly, helping Elmwood’s wrestlers to be successful on and off the mat.
“While we do love wins, the biggest thing we want is for our kids to be assets to society when they leave our program,” Lee said.
“I still get tears in my eyes when I see a kid who has struggled for two or three years but stuck with it and wins his first match.
“When I stop getting excited watching these kids win, that’s when I have to get out.
“I’ve been really blessed to be involved in this sport.”
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