Two years after hazing incident, York College wrestling program finds success on, off mat
That's all it took at the start of the 2013-2014 season for the York College wrestling team to tarnish the image of the program and the school.
For those 10 days, there were no matches. Just practices. Each day, members of the Spartan wrestling team would show up to the Grumbacher Sports and Fitness Center, walk to the wrestling room in the corner of the building and wrestle each other. There was little else to do.
During that time, the program was suspended from competing in matches in the aftermath of a hazing incident between members of the team. That gained the program national attention — for all the wrong reasons.
"It was all over the news," junior captain Mitchell Ramsey said. "I think it was on USA Today. There were news crews out here every single day, kids got expelled, the team just fell apart. There was no unity. It was kind of freshmen for themselves."
When it was all said and done, a few members of the team were expelled from the college, several more were suspended for the semester and several others didn't return to the team when their suspensions were lifted. Every member of the team and coaching staff was questioned about the incident, Ramsey said, including Head Coach Duane Bastress, who was a two-time NCAA Division III national champion for the school in 2005 and 2006. The team was put on probation for the remainder of the season, but the damage had already been done, giving the school a black eye.
It was, without a doubt, the darkest days the program had ever seen, but it was the months and years following the hazing incident that would truly define the team.
Moving forward: Moving on from the hazing incident was going to take some time. The roster was depleted, with a number of experienced wrestlers gone. However, in order to rehabilitate the image of the team and the school, work was needed to be done off the mat.
To start, the team took part in numerous fund raisers and walks for autism awareness, as well as going through a team- and school-mandated dry season last year, which meant no alcohol consumption in-season. Then there was the tough task for the coaching staff of selling the program to parents in the wake of the incident.
"Right off the bat was letting our freshmen that we had here at the time, letting their parents understand that: 'Look, this was an isolated incident and it will never happen again,'" Bastress said.
After that, Bastress and his staff had to somehow not let the incident impact their recruiting.
"The following recruiting class, some parents asked about it, which is justified," Bastress said. "I totally understood and explained to them that this is where we're at and we've moved on and it never happened before and it'll never happen again."
York did miss out on some top-notch recruits that decided to go elsewhere, but the team's revival was going to hinge on the members who stuck around after the hazing incident.
A quick turnaround: Ramsey was a freshman on the wrestling team when the hazing incident occurred. But he stuck around and is part of the core group that is helping rebuild the Spartans program. When you look at the team's roster on the York College athletics website, of the 35 wrestlers, 14 are juniors and seniors. Those are the guys who committed to the team following the hazing incident and are the heart and soul of the program.
"We had a lot of freshmen — good freshmen — that came in my freshman year who wanted to transfer and leave," Ramsey said. "They said: 'Is this really for me? We're not even going to be able to wrestle.' And, Coach (Corey) King, Coach (Matt) Heisey, Coach (Kyle) Flickinger and Duane all just really said: 'Promise you'll stick this out and we'll make it worth your while.'"
The wrestlers did and the coaches lived up to their end of the bargain.
Wherever the team went that year, the wrestlers carried the image of being the "hazing" team. Shedding that reputation would take time, so all the team could do was handle business on the mat. The Spartans did just that, going 11-9 the rest of the year, despite a young roster.
Last season, the team continued to build and distance itself from the previous year's incident, going 21-5 in dual meets, making it all the way to Mid-East Regional.
Now, when York rolls into a match, the opposition no longer judges the team by what happened off the mat, but rather for what it can do on it.
"People know we're nasty, physical wrestlers," Ramsey said.
Looking ahead: Which leads us to this season. It's been just more than two years since the hazing incident, but it might as well be a lifetime.
The school continues to back the wrestling program as it rehabs its image. The Spartans entered the year with tremendous expectations off of last year's success. There are even a few guys who are ranked nationally in Division III their weight class, including Ryan Flynn, who is No. 8 at 133 pounds.
York opened its season with two losses this past weekend to Navy, an NCAA Division I program that was more a learning experience than anything else. Now, the team prepares for its first Division III competition of the year this weekend at the King's College Monarch Invitational, where it's looking to improve on a second-place finish a year ago.
There's no question the hazing incident was something no team or program ever wants to go through. But, in turn, it brought the wrestlers who stuck it out much closer, helping them build a family-like bond that's allowed them to work through the last two years with success.
"For me personally, (staying) was one of the best decisions I've ever made," Ramsey said. "Since that point, it's been completely turned around. The school, the teachers, everybody."
— Reach Patrick Strohecker at email@example.com; follow on Twitter @P_Strohecker