I can’t remember the first time I met Greg Stolfer. It may have been 27 years ago, during his first season as the Edgewood wrestling coach. It may have been even before that.
I do know I have known the man for most of my life and in many different capacities.
Stolfer has been the nice man who let an 8-year-old roll around on the mats during weekend practices, the high school coach
I looked up to after he reintroduced himself to me as a junior high wrestler and told me how he had been waiting a long time to become my coach. He was my teacher and coach once I reached the high school. For nearly a decade, we’ve maintained a professional relationship as writer and source.
Over the years, there have been more than a few constants, but the one part of our relationship that’s never been different is that Stolfer has been the Warriors’ wrestling coach. Until now.
Stolfer is retiring from the post, ending a coaching career that has spanned two schools, 32 years and a number of sports. He will remain in his role as a woodshop teacher at Edgewood.
“Whether it’s time or not, 32 years as a coach is a long time,” Stolfer said. “I have never taught and not coached. Most years, I coached two or three different sports. I have never known what it’s like to just teach.
“It was brutal. It was brutal. I got so close to the kids.
There were rumors the last couple of years. Every year, the rumors were bigger.
Hell, I was surprised by some of the stuff that was said. People want to talk, so I let them talk. I don’t know anyone knew for sure. The boys (Gregory and Matthew) knew. My wife knew. Like I said, it was tough, but it was time.”
Stolfer got his start at St. John, serving as an assistant under baseball coach Bill Schmidt, who led the Heralds of Ohio State coach football coach Urban Meyer and future Edgewood coaches Mike Hayes, who currently heads the baseball team at McDowell High School in Erie and Dave Rozzo, athletic director at SS. John and Paul.
“(Coaching’s) been a part of me for a long time,” Stolfer said. “It was tough. There are a lot of great memories, especially from wrestling, but even from St. John baseball. It’s touched my life and it’s touched my family’s life. It’s been part of my life since I started. I spent 27 years (coaching) wrestling. These people are still a part of my life. You and I shared four years. I got to coach my sons (Gregory and Matthew). My daughter (Emily) got to be a part of it, as did my wife (Ann). I stuck for 27 years (as Edgewood wrestling coach). I’ve been blessed.”
With the Warriors, Stolfer served more as a patriarch than as a coach.
“There are a lot of memories,” Stolfer said. “Kids stop at my house. They went to school and graduated and moved on with their lives. They still come back to see the old man. That does a heart good. I think someone wrote on Facebook about the Edgewood wrestling family. That’s what it’s been like.”
Just a few years ago, I had learned Stolfer had been a coach with that vaunted Heralds’ team. I was a more than a little shocked that he had served as a baseball coach and took some time to ask him about it. I knew he’d coached football. I knew exactly the kind of coach he was on the mat. But I had a hard time seeing him as a baseball coach. I simply had to know how that had worked out for him.
My query got a bit of a laugh from Stolfer.
“I didn’t know anything about coaching baseball,” he said at the time. “But I knew one thing. Pitchers had to have strong legs and good conditioning. So I made them run. We ran all the time. They would run the stairs a lot.”
At that, I could only smile and shake my head. I knew all too well Stolfer’s idea of how to condition an athlete. In that moment, I had flashed back to a scene from days as a Warrior. I could hear Stolfer shouting at us to get our arms up and to pick up the pace. I could almost feel myself running those God-forsaken stairs across the hall from the principal’s office.
Back in the moment, all I could say was that it was good to know he hadn’t changed much in that respect.
That small exchange was but a funny exchange between coach and former athlete. That is until after I learned Stolfer was retiring. In many ways, my old mentor was giving away one of his biggest philosophies.
No team ever coached by Stolfer was ever going to be beaten because of tired legs.
“I always said what we lacked in talent we would make up for with hard work,” Stolfer said. “I firmly believe you have to be willing to work harder than everybody else.”
“You have six minutes. That’s all you have. You don’t get a second half. There are no time outs. You have six minutes. We weren’t a team that used a lot of injury time. I’d plug your nose, pat you on the ass and push you back out there. How many matches did we win because of that, not just individual matches, but as a team, because we were so strong in the third period? That was real important to me. I would patch ’up and send ’em back out there. Was that the best thing I could do? Each team is different, but we did what we do.”
Stolfer also believed that in order to be the best, you had to beat the best. As such, he took the Warriors to events with the best competition he could find, location mattered little.
“We wrestled in a lot of places not in Ashtabula County,” Stolfer said. “We went to Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia and all over Ohio. We were on the road a lot. We wrestled teams from Maryland, Georgia, Virginia, New York and Pennsylvania. I hope it was a good experience for the kids. That’s important to me.
“People would ask where we were from. We were from Ashtabula County. They would say, ‘Are you kidding me?’ We were from Ashtabula County. We weren’t supposed to be on that level, but that’s what we strived for.”
That doesn’t mean Stolfer’s Warriors were going to shy away from the local competition. Over the years, his teams had rivalries with nearly every school within 50 miles of Ashtabula Township, including Madison, Riverside, Geneva, Conneaut and Lakeside, among others.
“We had some battles with area teams,” Stolfer said. “They all wanted to beat Edgewood. We just wanted to win, it didn’t matter who we were wrestling. People would say, ‘You’re from Ashtabula County? We’re going to beat you.’ I would try and drive the kids to not let it happen. In duals, we beat some teams we had no business beating. The kids pulled together.
“We beat some real good teams over the years. For the life of me, I can’t put my finger on why. The kids just performed for me. I’ve been blessed.”
Stolfer always demanded the best of his athletes. It was not uncommon for his wrestlers to leave practice, go home and head straight for bed out of exhaustion. You were expected to be at every practice and giving every last ounce of energy you had in order to get better.
It was rare for Stolfer not to get that exact commitment from his team. He was afforded that by his wrestlers for one simple reason. He made them understand he was only trying to make them better and he that he truly cared for them not only as members of his team, but as people, as well.
“Something happened to me in high school,” Stolfer said. “I said if I ever got to coach, it would never happen. I was going to take care of the athletes. I hope I have.”
Stolfer was tough on his wrestlers. He demanded a lot. He pushed them past their comfort levels on a daily basis. But he got away with it because his charges knew that no matter what, if they gave everything they had to the man and his team, he would take care of them.
“That’s the way I teach, too,” Stolfer said. “I’m hands on as a teacher and a coach. I don’t think that would change. I don’t have a problem giving a hug or a kick in the ass. They go hand in hand. You need both and I don’t have a problem doing both. If I have something to say, I say it. If I have to tell the kids something, I say it. I’m not going to sugarcoat it. They need to hear it.”
Stolfer had good reason to push his wrestlers out of their comfort zones.
“Someone told me they didn’t want to use a certain grade,”
Stolfer said. “Kids don’t learn character in a classroom. They learn it during the two and a half hours after school. I absolutely agree. They learn a lot in classes, but building character comes from doing something they’re not used to doing, from testing their will power and mental toughness. I think they need to be part of something.”
Over the years, Stolfer has routinely had teams from other schools show up at Edgewood for practice. He has invited individual wrestlers to train with his program, though that wrestler may one day beat one of his guys. He took an active interest in helping any kid who needed it.
Frank Hall, who wrestled at Harbor, could be found practicing with the Warriors. While trying to build programs in the mid-1990s, Grand River Academy and St. John brought teams for Saturday workouts. The Braden Junior High time was constantly in attendance over Christmas break and on weekends.
That’s continued to this day.
“We’ve been having the kids out during the week,” Stolfer said. “I haven’t been there, but Gregory and Wes (Cleveland), Stolfer’s assistants this past season, have been going. That’s something we’ve always done. And it’s not just for the Edgewood kids. It’s open to everybody, the kids from Lakeside, Conneaut, Edgewood and Jefferson. I’ve never been one to say it’s just for Edgewood.”
To that end, Stolfer always had an open door to the wrestling team. He would never turn away someone who was willing to devote their blood, sweat and tears to becoming a Warrior. Background, gender nor skill level mattered. All were welcome.
“I was blessed to have girls come out for the team,” Stolfer said. “I think, at first, they want me to say they can’t because they’re girls. I’ve never done that. Now, wrestling for women in college is wide open. It’s one of the fastest growing sports in high school. Girls wrestling is a good thing.”
No coach lasts 27 years in one sport at one school without loving at least a little part of what he does. Winning and losing rarely enter the equation.
Before every match, Stolfer would always take a few minutes to deliver a few instructions, impart some wisdom and provide a bit of motivation for his team. It was in those moments he took the greatest joy.
“That little meeting we had before the match,” Stolfer said, growing emotional. “For four or five minutes, I had their attention. I had their attention and they listened.”
Though success has always been a driving force for him, Stolfer was never a win-at-all-costs coach. He did, however, take enjoyment from trying to figure out ways to beat an opponent.
“The part I’m going to miss is figuring out how to beat people,” Stolfer said. “I loved that. That’s part of sports. I loved the Xs and Os. It’s a big chess match. That’s the part I like. I like figuring out how to beat people. And we did things different. It just worked.”
During this past season, Stolfer and I were talking about the rules regarding weight classes and cutting weight. While I was a Warrior 17 years ago, I was forever trying to cut weight. Partly because a lighter weight class would help me maximize my success and partly because I was a member of a team with an outstanding lineup and there were few holes higher in the lineup.
I was always trying to cut more weight than I should have and was almost always right on target, coming in heavy just once. I was forever trying to run off that last little bit right up until weigh-ins. Stolfer, however, was never worried I would come in fat.
During that conversation this past winter, he explained why.
“I knew you and Dan (Partridge) were good friends,” he said.
“So I would go to him and put the responsibility on him. If you didn’t make weight, he knew he was going to be in trouble. You never missed weight, did you?”
At the time, it was a funny anecdote in which I learned a little about how my former coach kept an eye on his team. But it speaks to how Stolfer managed his operation. Simply put, he knew his wrestlers. He knew what made them tick. He understood how to get the most from them. And he knew just how to reach them.
“I was more in your business than you knew,” Stolfer said. “It wasn’t just two and a half hours after school. It was before school, after school, during class, at lunch, during study hall, at the shopping mall. The kids told me what was going on. I had first-hand information. That helped. It’s not easy being an athlete today. It wasn’t easy 27 years ago. We stuck together.”
In becoming close to his athletes, there were times Stolfer took the failures a bit personally.
“There are so many ups and downs as a coach,” Stolfer said. “In the early ’90s, I had two kids I thought would go to state and didn’t make it. I was personally crushed. I thought about what I was doing. I wondered why they couldn’t get to the next level. I would go home and beat myself up over it and ask what I was doing wrong. But it wasn’t what I was doing wrong. It just didn’t happen. Some things are just out of your control and there’s not a good reason.
Some athletes worked their tails off for me just to get to districts. I have stories. I have a list of kids (getting to the state tournament) would have changed their lives. Sure, wrestling changed their lives, but they could have taken the next step.”
Always a Warrior
A big reason Stolfer’s teams found success over the years was because were not simply teammates. They weren’t just friends. They were brothers.
Young men who never crossed paths in the natural order of high school could be found fighting alongside each other. A Warrior wrestler was rarely alone on the weekend.
And Stolfer served as the father figure to the team.
“We’d have a hard practice and we’d gather in close,”
Stolfer said. “We would stink. We were sweating. Some of us would be bleeding.
We’d have black eyes. But we would talk. The coaches would talk. You guys would talk. I would talk. Maybe that’s what brought us close. I felt like the kids would walk through a wall for me. I hope they know I would do that for them, too. If I was in their corner, I was IN their corner. That didn’t change if we won a state championship or not. Did I change their lives? I hope so. I know they changed mine. I hope I made young men out of most of the kids. Growing up is hard to do.”
Membership in the family never expired. Through the years, former wrestlers always came back to help current Warriors on the mats. While I was in school, Troy Smock, Cleveland, Riverside coach Scott Blank and a number of others were always on hand to help me improve.
Stolfer fostered it. He might run a former athlete at the mall, or talk to one writing about a match, and extend an invitation to come to practice. It was widely understood there was an open door and anyone who wanted to come was welcome.
“We wouldn’t be where we are without the kids coming back,”
Stolfer said. “I think the school districts miss the boat on that. A lot of kids who went to college came back and a lot of kids who didn’t go to college came back. They need to see that camaraderie and talk to the older kids. That’s something the kids really miss out on.
“The older kids giving back to the younger kids really toughens them up. I think I was blessed with that. The kids coming back really made us better. I think it made us a really good program. The kids coming back is where we really got an edge. The kids wrestling the older kids, they get better. That’s not by accident. They take their lumps, but taking lumps builds character.”
Stolfer was never alone in coaching. He has had a long and loyal list of assistants that includes former wrestlers, a former member of the team at the University of Miami (Fla.), state qualifiers from neighboring schools and his own son.
“I’ve been blessed,” Stolfer said. “I’ve had Frank Hall, Wes Cleveland, Casey Webster, Ed Dick, Ray Strater, Chris Batanian. Wes has been with me the longest. What we were able to do was because we stuck together. We loved the sport.”
The wrestlers parents were also always considered part of the family.
“The kids were wonderful for me,” Stolfer said. “We wouldn’t have been able to do half of what we did without the parents. It’s amazing, the general kindness of people.”
The family also included non-wrestlers who were students.
Stolfer never chased away someone who was willing to help in whatever way possible. The sisters of his wrestlers were encouraged to keep the scorebook.
Girlfriends were entrusted to help keep young men in line. Students who were unable to compete found roles as student trainers, as Marc Wheeler had done during his years at the school.
“Marc Wheeler came to my son’s open house,” Stolfer said. “He brought his daughter and his mom and dad. Marc was a student trainer for us for a long time. He was with us through thick and thin. It was great to see his family. It’s been an amazing run.”
Among the hundreds of kids he coached through the years were Stolfer’s own sons. He makes little attempt to downplay the significance of the time he spent with them on the mat.
“Those were cherished times,” Stolfer said. “I like to tell the kids it burns an image in your brain you will never forget and it has. It will be with me the rest of my life.”
Many parents can’t coach they own children. If they do, a resentment can grow. Stolfer understood that all too well and tried to avoid it with his own boys.
“My goal for my kids was that I wanted them to talk to me when they were 18,” Stolfer said. “I’ve seen a lot over the years. What was important to me was they still liked me when they were 18. A lot of kids hate the sport. They hate their parents. With wrestling, I wanted them to still like the sport. A lot of parents may bad mouth me. But my kids still like the sport and they still talk to me. They got to spend a lot of time with me, even my wife and daughter. That’s priceless.”
It’s often said that a coach’s wife becomes a widow during the season. Over 27 years, that can become a big problem for some. Ann Stolfer always supported her husband’s teams and wrestlers. To this day, I can call the Stolfer household and she’ll talk with me a moment or two about what’s been happening in my life.
“She’s been a saint,” Stolfer said. “Even Thanksgiving break and Christmas break we’re gone. We travel. She’s gone above and beyond. I thank her for that. It does take a special person. It’s tough, especially when the kids are babies.
“Two of them were born during the season and one was just before. It’s tough when there are newborns at home, but we made it.”
In many ways, Stolfer considered all of his wrestlers to be like sons, dispensing advice, listening to problems even disciplining when necessary. Once you become a member of the family, no matter your connection to the program, you were always a member of the family.
“Four months a year over 27 years, that’s nine years,” Stolfer said. “That’s not counting high school or college. That’s just at Edgewood. You can’t imagine the hours (my wrestlers and I) I have spent together. That’s family. Your family, too. Your dad was a referee. He knew I was going to chew on his ass. But he was part of the family and he knew where he stood.”
Ettinger is a freelance writer from Ashtabula. Reach him at email@example.com.
I can’t remember the first time I met Greg Stolfer. It may have been 27 years ago, during his first season as the Edgewood wrestling coach. It may have been even before that.
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