WAYNE, Neb. | Greg Vander Weil was sitting at the College World Series in Omaha when he heard the rumor for the first time.
“I was at the College World Series and someone came up to me and said that they heard I was starting a wrestling program,” said the 25-year educator at Wayne State College. “I wasn’t at that time but that fall I put out the all-call at the school and I have always said give me a mat and schedule and I would be ready to go.”
Vander Weil was a three-year letterwinner at East High and wrestled for the Wildcats from 1979-81 before the sport was cut from the varsity roster in 1981.
The Wayne State Wrestling Club is now in its fifth year of existence and has grown each year under Vander Weil’s leadership along with associate head coach Aaron Schuett who came aboard this season. The team is part of the National College Wrestling Association Division II clubs, which includes Kansas State, Florida Gulf Coast, Central Florida, South Carolina and Texas. The Wildcats’ schedule this past season included stops at Northwestern and the Briar Cliff Open.
Vander Weil, who coached for five seasons at Wayne High School, believes coaching at the club level allows for many more opportunities for coaches and athletes.
“It is a labor of love and a passion,” Vander Weil said. “I know what the sport gave me and that was coping skills because when you leave the mat you either won it or lost it. Our program is built on faith and family, education and wrestling third.”
The program has already seen success. Tahner Thiem was crowned an All-American, finishing fifth in 2011 and the team finished 10th. This past season the Wildcats finished in a tie for 15th at the national tournament in Allen, Texas.
“I am proud because we are already competing nationally with an enrollment of 3,500 going up against schools with 10,000-plus and we are right with them,” Vander Weil said.
However, what truly makes the Wayne State program, which is recognized by the administration and student organizations, is where Vander Weil places the emphasis for the Wildcats.
“I don’t own them. If kids have a review session they will go to the review session, or if it is grandma’s 80th birthday they will go to grandma’s birthday,” he said. “They are good citizens. We are a faith-based team and we are not afraid of that.”
Vander Weil, 56, said the program has received financial support through donations that have allowed it to acquire the necessary gear and even be able to give out small amounts of scholarship money, but how that money is divided is unique.
“We have performance-based scholarships where money is awarded for next season based on how you did this season,” he said. “The kids embrace it and know what they are wrestling for.”
Matthew DeGarmo accumulated the most points this season and also received an academic scholarship for a team that had a GPA of 2.9 and a pair of academic All-Americans. DeGarmo will receive $400 to go toward tuition and fees next season.
Although the wrestling club is not an official varsity sport, Vander Weil said giving kids the chance to continue to compete is the mission behind the NCWA.
“It provides opportunities for anyone in college to enjoy the sport,” said Vander Weil, who is not paid for his work as the coach of the team.
Rob Peter, who has been with the program all five years, said the flexibility is a big draw for a lot of the wrestlers.
"I came to Wayne State to play baseball but that didn't pan out," he said. "But the flexibility of being able to compete in other sports and still wrestle -- and we are not lacking for competition -- so you get good kids that want to wrestle and prove themselves."
Vander Weil believes the foundation for a strong wrestling program has been put in place, but whether the sport ever returns to the varsity level at Wayne State is still an unknown. There is little doubt, however, on what the program means to the wrestlers.
"Being able to wrestle has made (my college experience) 10 times better being able to compete in a sport I love and still get a good education," said Peter, who will return next season as the team’s strength and conditioning coach.