BY VAL TSOUTSOURIS
Sports Editor, RTC
The yard signs and the Facebook page indicated a support of Rochester wrestling fans and parents for their coach.
“I Stand With Gard.”
The Rochester School Board first voted regarding Gard’s contract status on Sept. 21. The vote was 3-3 with one abstention. (The board voted unanimously in favor of all the other coaches on the board docket that night.) They voted again on Oct. 7, and this time the board voted 7-0 in favor of renewing Gard’s contract.
Their coach was back, and the new season begins with a home dual match tonight against Manchester.
Though he was not technically the coach, Gard said he remained in contact with the kids while his contract status was in limbo. A physical education teacher at RHS, he was still opening the weight room for the kids and running open gyms.
“It was a confusing time for a lot of people,” Gard said. “I was still around the kids and still coaching and going through my normal routine. Until somebody actually came to me and told me different, I was going to continue to do what I do.”
Gard was thankful for the support. He noted that the testimonials transcended wrestling, which has a devoted fanbase. A member of the RHS faculty for 25 years, he said even non-wrestlers who had him as a teacher reached out to him.
“It was very humbling, very humbling,” Gard said. “Wrestling’s kind of a tight-knit group, whether it’s parents or kids or coaches or teammates or whatever. I’ve always found that when people are involved in wrestling, they’re very passionate. And that goes both ways. They’re very passionate in their support, but they’re also very passionate when someone does something wrong. Had I had been deemed to really do something terrible, I guess – and I’ve seen it with other coaches just around the country whether it’s high school or middle school or college – when a coach really, really screws up, the wrestling community is the first one to say, ‘Hey, you screwed up. You’re done.’ They call a spade a spade. But also from the other side of that, they’re the first ones to support and really rally around whether it's dropping a program or a coach being dismissed or something going on with a couple kids, whatever. Like I said, it was just a very humbling thing to happen to me.”
Gard said he didn’t know why the board’s view of him changed from the first time they voted to the second.
He did say that he’s toned down his social media presence.
“My contract renewal was based on mainly some social media stuff,” Gard said. “So I’ll kind of leave it at that. And those are things that I apologized for in public, so I feel like I can talk about those. I think overall I have a big personality when it comes to wrestling, and I have a big personality on social media when it comes to wrestling, and I think whether I agree with it or not, it doesn’t matter. I think that bothers some people, and obviously, I have my beliefs on that, but I want to coach for six years and finish coaching my boys and finish coaching some kids that we’ve got coming up. I feel like we’ve got the program going in the right direction. There’s still some things that I feel like I wanted to pass along and teach to not just the kids but my assistant coaches who will probably take over.
“Sometimes, you’ve got to swallow your pride a little bit whether you agree or disagree with other people’s sentiments, and you do what you’ve got to do because it’s the best thing for the kids. So that’s what I’m doing.”
RHS graduated nobody from last year’s sectional roster. (Haydn Prater, a semistate qualifier in 2018 and 2019 who underwent season-ending ankle surgery during winter break last year, did graduate. He is now wrestling at Northern State University, an NCAA Division II school located in Aberdeen, South Dakota.)
Four other wrestlers from last year’s sectional team did not return, but all five wrestlers who advanced beyond sectionals are back. That includes Wade Shafer, a semistate qualifier at 145 from last year who moves up to 152 this year.
Other returning regional qualifiers include Ethan Holloway, who will stay at 113; Aaron Swango, likely moving from 120 to 126; Greyson Gard, who will jump from 126 all the way to Shafer’s old spot at 145; and Kaleb Shaffer, who will stay at 170.
Greyson Gard, a sophomore, has grown seven inches since graduating middle school, according to coach Gard.
Coach Gard said 18 or 19 of his wrestlers are freshmen and sophomores.
Holloway, Aaron Swango and Gard are sophomores.
“Our freshmen don’t look like freshmen anymore,” coach Gard said of his sophomores.
Meanwhile, actual freshmen like Tyler Wolfe, Alex Deming and Brady Beck are expected to crack the lineup at 106, 182 and 220, respectively.
Jaden Geller is a newcomer at 120. Joey Spencer is a newcomer who could see time at 113 or 120.
Christian Bean, Colin Weiand and Gavin McKee are newcomers who could also compete for mat time at the middle weights.
“It’s looking very bright for not just this team now but obviously in the future,” Gard said. “We’ve just got a ton of kids that are young, so I’m excited. I think they can do some pretty cool stuff.”
Shafer’s younger brother Mitchell will wrestle at 132. Nathanael Beck could back up Mitchell Shafer at 132 or wrestle at 138. Mikala Weightman, a move-in from Lewis Cass whom Gard described as a “go-getter,” will compete for mat time at 138.
Junior Marshall Fishback is a returnee who will wrestle at heavyweight. Younger brother Dylon is his backup. Eli Swango is another returnee who could see time at 182 or 195.
The three seniors are Noah Swango, Joel Hensley and Shafer. Noah Swango moves up from 152 to 160. Hensley, a second-year wrestler, could see mat time at 170, though he will compete with Grace Hirams.
“Wade and Noah have some lofty goals this year,” Gard said. “Two totally different kids. Wade’s a third-year wrestler, and Noah has been wrestling since forever.”
Coach Gard said many wrestlers worked to stay in condition, even despite the pandemic. Whether it was at a commercial gym in town or in a home basement while staying socially distant from the world, coach Gard said his wrestlers got buff.
“Those kids just look different,” coach Gard said. “We’ve got a lot of kids who look a lot different than last year. And you’ll be able to see that.”
The Rochester wrestling team