WrestlingWednesday: Shenandoah Not a Fly By Night Program
By JEREMY HINES
When Gary Black Jr. interviewed for the head wrestling coach at Shenandoah, his goals were clear. He didnâ€™t want to maintain the status quo for the Raiders. He wasnâ€™t content with getting a few kids through to semistate. He wanted to put Shenandoah on the wrestling map, and he wanted the small Henry County school to compete, and win against the stateâ€™s best programs.
His vision for the program landed him the job, and now, seven years later, he has done exactly what he said he would.
Shenandoah won the schoolâ€™s first sectional two weeks ago. The Raiders dominated larger schools such as New Castle and Richmond in the process.
Last week the Raiders fell 1.5 points shy of winning the schoolâ€™s first regional title.
â€œWe had to get a mentality change,â€ Black said. â€œWe had to understand the physicality of wrestling. We reached out to the elementary school. We implemented a club to get young kids invested in the sport at an early age. It took us a few years, but when we had an opening for the middle school job and I had John Slivka and my dad (Gary) take over, we really started developing our feeder system.â€
Shenandoah has seven wrestlers competing at the New Castle semistate Saturday. Sophomores A.J. Black (106) and Dallas Pugsley (126), senior Ryan Surguy (138) and freshman Silas Allred (170) were all Richmond regional champions. Sophomore Hayden Lohrey (132) lost a close match to undefeated Cainan Schaefer in the championship round. Josh Gee (senior, 160) lost to No. 2-ranked Alston Bane 1-0 in the championship and sophomore Jake Webster placed fourth in the 152-pound class.
The Raider success story is one of heartache, determination and a coach that refuses to give up on his kids.
Coach Blackâ€™s younger brother Levi was perhaps the most talented grappler on the Raider team. He had an insane dedication to the sport and a work ethic that was unrivaled. Levi was well liked by everyone he came in contact with. But, despite all the positives he had going for him, Levi struggled with a mental illness that eventually led him to take his own life, at the high school, in November of 2015.
The death rocked the tiny Shenandoah community, as well as much of the surrounding area. Leviâ€™s funeral brought together wrestlers from around the state. Many wrestlers, such as Bane at Richmond, have shown support of the Black family and helped raised awareness of mental illness by having a green streak (symbolic of Leviâ€™s fight with the disease) dyed in his hair.
The Shenandoah team needed strength during this time. They needed someone to help them cope with the emotional gravity of the situation. The Black family was there to provide it.
â€œBoth coaches (Gary Jr. and Sr.) are my heroes,â€ Gee said. â€œAfter all they went through, they still took care of us â€“ even over themselves. Through their pain they never let us down. They helped us cope and really turned us into a wrestling brotherhood. We are a family.â€
For Gary Jr., he knew he needed to find a way to honor Levi, yet move forward.
â€œThe last 16 months have been a huge learning curve for a lot of us,â€ Black said. â€œNot only are you dealing with the daily grind of being a wrestler at a high level, but these kids already battle a lot of things daily. That was one more added struggle for all of us. There are days for me, my dad and Iâ€˜m sure the kids â€“ being at that exact same place where everything happened â€“ that make it very difficult. All of our lives have been changed.â€
Last year A.J. Black, Levi and Gary Jrâ€™s youngest brother, tried doing everything he could to honor Levi. At times, the pressure got to him. He didnâ€™t want to let his family down. When he lost in the ticket round to go to state, you could see that built up emotion boil over as tears streamed down his face.
â€œThe weight of trying to accomplish a goal for the memory of his brother took its toll on A.J. and just mentally wore him down,â€ coach Black said. â€œWe talked about it. He had to make a shift in how he honors his brother. He needs to start doing things for himself.
â€œI ask him before every match, who he is wrestling for. He now will say â€˜Meâ€™ and then give me a hug and go wrestle. He still honors Levi, but by working his hardest and doing his best. Thatâ€™s all Levi would have wanted.â€
The hard work mantra extends past A.J. To a man, the Raiders pride themselves on outworking other teams. The guys have bought into the system and have dedicated their summers to the sport.
â€œLevi was the hardest worker in the room,â€ A.J. said. â€œEveryone wants to make him proud by working as hard as they can, every day.â€
Take Allred for example. He is a 14-year old freshman that wonâ€™t turn 15 until May 28. Heâ€™s wrestling in one of the most physically demanding classes (170). Yet heâ€™s undefeated.
â€œWe believe success is a mindset,â€ Allred said. â€œI constantly train and constantly push myself to get better. If you want to be the best, you have to work to be the best. You can get better, or worse every single day.â€
Surguy and Gee are two examples of the dividends of that work ethic.
As a sophomore Gee was pinned by Bane in the sectional final in 36 seconds. Last year he lost 5-1 to Bane in the sectional final. This year, Gee has dropped two matches to Bane, but both were by the score of 1-0.
Surguy is another senior that struggled early, but has blossomed due to the work he puts in. This year Surguy is 42-2 with a sectional and regional title.
Gary has built the Raider program to be one of the stateâ€™s best. The Raiders finished No. 2 in the Class A team state, and have higher aspirations down the road.
For Gary, the key to success has been making the wrestlers buy into the fact that the only way to improve, is to outwork the opposition. He also makes sure the wrestlers feel like a family.
â€œWe see each other at our worst, and we see each other at our best,â€ said Allred, who has a 4.0 GPA and is ranked third in his class. â€œWhen one of us has a down day, the rest of us try and pick him up. This is more than a wrestling team. Weâ€™re all friends. Weâ€™re all brothers.â€
The leader of the Raider family is undoubtedly the young coach Black. His passion for the team is evident in every match he coaches.
â€œOn Sundays Iâ€™m exhausted,â€ Black said â€œItâ€™s hard for me to be on the sideline when I just want to go to war with them. I donâ€™t want to be the general just telling them to go into battle. I want to battle with them. Iâ€™ll be the intense guy on the sideline.
â€œI want these kids to win as bad as they do. I get extremely emotionally involved in their success. Iâ€™d like to think they appreciate it, even though I look ridiculous. I love wrestling and I love watching those kids compete.â€
Last year only Lohrey punched his ticket to the state meet for the Raiders. This year Shenandoah has high hopes to have more than one kid represented. They know how hard the road is to get to state, but theyâ€™ve prepared themselves to complete the journey â€“ just like a young coach interviewing for his first head coaching job seven years ago said they would.