McCleary to leave lasting impact on mat

  • Kevin McCleary has served York County wrestling as a competitor, coach and official for more than 40 years.
  • The 1973 graduate of West York High School compiled a 61-5-1 record at the school.
  • McCleary was West York's varsity wrestling head coach from 1984-1986.

One of the truest tests of a coach’s worth comes outside of the field of play.

Kevin McCleary show here during his standout wrestling career at West York High School.

More value should be placed on what their athletes achieve after their participation days are over, rather than on the immediate victories. Also, the more prized coaches often bring a new approach that lasts beyond their tenures.

With those notions as a barometer, the York County wrestling scene will miss a man of great value next season.

Kevin McCleary’s local impact stretches from his days as a standout wrestler at West York through many more days spent developing, teaching and officiating the sport.

“Kevin's wrestling influence has been felt throughout Pennsylvania,” said Charlie Jacobs, a former Dover coach who worked with McCleary. “Kevin enjoyed seeing all the York County wrestlers succeed, no matter which high school they came from. He loved the sport of wrestling and did everything to promote it.”

After hanging up his own singlet, McCleary, currently the junior high head coach at Dover, would go on to enjoy coaching stops at various levels with both the Eagles and his alma mater, West York.

Here are just a few snapshots of his reach.

Wilmer Pressel: When Wilmer Pressel first began his foray into the sport during the sixth grade, he was looking to build confidence.

Pressel, blind in one eye from early childhood, found the sport as a way to toughen himself to face any obstacle.

It was that same year that Pressel first met McCleary.

“He took me from basically sixth grade through graduation,” Pressel said. “He taught me everything. He was very tactical and he could break down a move like nobody else could. He could show you the finer points of the moves, and I think he really brought the best out of me. He’s the reason I placed at states.”

Pressel also praised the drive, work ethic and value for the sport that McCleary instilled in him, pushing him in a supportive manner every step of the way.

“I think he, in his own way, led me to shoot a certain way or wrestle a certain way that gave me the ability to be successful with my eye the way it is,” Pressel said. “He definitely led me that way, but he would never say it directly. He would never say ‘You should do this because of your eye.’ Never.”

Pressel would go on to a 29-8 record in his senior season and he also earned a sixth-place finish at the PIAA Class AAA tournament. He would later follow in McCleary’s footsteps, becoming West York’s junior high coach in 2012 before obligations at his full-time job caused him to step away.

“(York County wrestling is) losing the most devoted man to the sport,” Pressel said. “I’m sure he’s still going to be passionate about wrestling. He’s the most passionate coach I’ve ever met. When I became a coach, I always thought back to the way I was taught. That’s the way I taught my kids. Everything I taught was pretty much influenced by him.”

International styles: Pressel was far from the only athlete McCleary helped.

McCleary aided wrestlers from all over, helping to fine tune their skills through adding elements of international wrestling to their own game plans. In the 1980s, McCleary and Jacobs began the York County Wrestling Club.  The club invited wrestlers at the junior high and varsity levels to come together and learn the new styles.

“His freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling knowledge influenced many York County wrestlers,” Jacobs said. “... He inspired many local wrestlers to add those techniques to their high school repertoire.”

Being an advanced practitioner of the international styles, McCleary was appointed head coach of the Pennsylvania Wrestling Federation Greco-Roman Junior National Team, a position he held for several years.

Present day: Brandon Rodriguez is in the midst of his senior season at Dover and is prepping for his PIAA Class AAA 113-pound preliminary bout on Thursday. He puts his 25-5 record on the line (13 pins) against Council Rock North’s Aidan Burke.

Being on the big stage, and not knowing much about his foe, Rodriguez will lean on some of McCleary’s teachings.

“He taught me how to mentally prepare,” Rodriguez said. “And how to win and lose gracefully.”

The latter sentiment is one that Rodriguez plans to carry with him for the rest of his life.

McCleary's scholastic days: McCleary’s days as a student at West York saw the 1973 grad compile a record of 61-5-1. His win percentage (91) ranks second all-time for the Bulldogs. He was also a three-time sectional champion from 1971-1973.

McCleary holds the distinction as being one of only two Bulldog wrestlers to never lose a dual match, the other being Glenn Amsbaugh.

“I always looked up to Kevin as a great teammate, fellow captain and friend during our years at West York,” said Don Lehman, a fellow 1973 grad. “Kevin was really quick, sneaky strong and fantastic on his feet. He could throw you at any time.”

McCleary would later attend Franklin & Marshall, where he would earn All-America status with a third-place finish at the 1974 NCAA Division III meet.

West York's Don Lehman, center, and Kevin McCleary earned Outstanding Wrestler award at the 1972 Easton Holiday Tournament.

Getting into coaching: After his college days, he began his coaching career at his alma mater under the direction of the legendary John Toggas, working his way up to junior high head coach before taking over the varsity program in 1984. He would lead the Bulldogs until 1986.

He also spent time with the state Greco-Roman and freestyle teams from 1984 until 1994. McCleary was also named USA Wrestling's National Developmental Coach of the Year in 1990.

McCleary also followed in the footsteps of his father, Paul, by becoming a PIAA wrestling official. He also officiated on the international and collegiate level until 1995, and has twice worked the PIAA meet.

In 1993, he began his stint at Dover as a junior high assistant before becoming junior high head coach in 1995, a position he had up to his retirement.

Deflecting praise: Although he’s stepping away from the everyday rigors of being a coach, McCleary still intends on finding ways to be involved in the sport locally. In fact, McCleary was at Hershey’s Giant Center helping set up the mats for the PIAA meet this week.

Lastly, and to his credit, McCleary wanted little part in a reflection of his career. Instead, like the best coaches often do, he deflected praise to those who competed for him.

“It’s been wonderful. It’s been an amazing, enriching time in my life to watch these kids grow up and have their own families,” McCleary said. “I want to stay involved somehow. I’ll be the video review guy or something, or sit in a corner and help someone if they want.

“I don’t want this to be about me, but the kids,” McCleary said. “The kids, they’re the ones who did it.

"The lives that were touched, the friends that were made, the lessons that were learned and those moments when one sees deep into another's soul were hopefully enriching to the competitors, because they certainly were enriching to me."

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