Perry wrestling coach Dave Rowan savoring one last state run before retiring at season's end

Mar. 8—COLUMBUS — Cupping his hands around his mouth with his elbow pointed outward, Dave Rowan rose to his feet in the corner of the mat on Day 1 of the state wrestling tournament and shouted instructions to his wrestler.

For 24 years now, Rowan has been a fixture as Perry's head wrestling coach. He's lost count of how many times he has sat in the corner with one of his Pirates wrestling in the state tournament.

But this year is different. This year is special. Because this year is his last.

Rowan has informed the Perry administration that he will be stepping down from the position he has held for nearly two-and-a-half decades. So this year's trek to the state tournament, which he is making with five of his wrestlers, is his last.

And what a special swan song it is, with the youngest of his three sons — Riley — making the trip as one of the top-ranked Division III 126-pounders in the state.

"I've enjoyed it all, but 35 years is just a long time," Rowan said, counting the 11 years he served as an assistant coach at St. Edward, Chardon and Perry before taking over as head coach. "It's just time for somebody else to take over and tell their story here."

Rowan's story is impressive. An athletic hall of famer at Madison, he went on to be an All-American wrestler at Edinboro before beginning his coaching journey at St. Edward. After two years assisting at St. Edward and one at Chardon, Rowan said, "it was time to come home to the Madison and Perry area," where he was hired by former Perry athletic director Phil Cassella.

"Being assistant, yeah, I enjoyed that," Rowan said. "I could just wrestle, lift weights, go for runs... there was no pressure of scheduling busses and stuff like that. Just go wrestle and have fun."

When former coach Bob Sater announced he was stepping down in 1999, Rowan had some soul-searching to do. That was the year his son, Kyle, was going to be born.

"I really wanted to be a good father. A good father and a good husband," he said. "I was like, 'Man, do I really want to do this? How am I gonna do both, be a coach AND a good father and husband?'"

The answer, he said, was to make sure the entire family was involved. That included changing diapers in the wrestling room, bringing tricycles and Big Wheels for kids to ride in the fieldhouse on snow days and bus rides for all.

"And my wife..." Rowan said, tears welling up thinking about the hard work and sacrifices made by his wife Cathy. "If I wanted to stay in the business a long time, I had to have my family involved."

For more than a decade, Perry held the dubious honor of having the most second-place finishes in the state tournament without a state champion. That all changed when five Pirates made it to the top step of the podium with Rowan in the corner — Billy Miller (twice), Kyle Kremiller, Brock Christian and the oldest of his four children, Kyle.

In his 24 years as Perry's head coach, six of them have ended with one of his sons wrestling in the state tournament. While Rowan said he treats all of his wrestlers as a child of his own, flesh and blood on the mat is a different animal — including this year's final run with Riley.

"Yeah, it's different," Rowan said. "I have the same feeling for all of them, but when it's your son, it's a special bond. It's hard to say what the (different) feeling is like, but it burns. It's in there."

The first round of his final state tournament was a rough one for his team. While his son dominated a 15-0 technical fall over Bridgeport's Jordan Noble in his 126-pound opener, four other Pirates — Chris Bezzeg (138), Chance Schlauch (144), Domenick LaMacchia (165) and Antonius Bertone (175) all lost their openers and headed to the consolation bracket. Bezzeg wrestled back to win his first consolation match and is still alive heading into Day 2 of the tournament.

His son's opener, which puts him in the quarterfinal round on March 9, was gratifying in that Riley is finally healthy after gutting through last year's state tournament with an injured shoulder that required surgery.

"Last year, I was just worrying about wrestling without my arm dislocating," Riley said.

Again, his father's eyes welled up.

"Even if he lost, he was out there doing his best, giving it his best," the proud father said. "That's what I want for all of my kids."

Whether he is related to them or not.

Said Riley, being "Rowan trained" means more than wins and losses and whether or not you climb the podium at the state wrestling tournament. It's, as his father said, turning boys into men.

"The impact he's had on so many lives is amazing," the Duke-bound wrestler said. "You learn how to be a better person in this program. Everything you need in life — hard work, determination, dedication — have been implemented here through practice and team bonding. It's not always about wrestling. It's about things that you'll take with you to be a successful man in life."

Rowan, who plans on spending a lot of time following daughter Jordan's soccer events next year, shrugs his shoulders when asked how he'll handle life without wrestling. After all, it's been such a big part of his life. But he quickly points out that he doesn't deserve anywhere near half of the credit for what the program has achieved on his watch.

He's confident it will continue well beyond his final match this weekend.

"We like to win, no doubt about it," Rowan said, "but it's never been all about winning. Whether or not you went to state, whether or not you went to college, we just wanted to change kids' lives. I just hope they look back and say, 'Coach Rowan was a good guy and he changed peoples' lives."