By BOB YORK —
Mark Scandling knows all about life preservers. He coaches the Big Green boys water polo in the fall and you can find him tutoring girls water polo in the spring. It’s doubtful, however, he ever dreamed he would need a life preserver at his other job: wrestling coach.
There he was though, the first day of practice at mat’s edge. He wasn’t attired in the typical Deerfield Wrestling jersey, however, he was wearing a lifeguard shirt. Because to the members of this winter’s wrestling program, that’s exactly what he would he.
The bottom line for Deerfield Academy wrestling this winter had nothing to do with wins and losses, nor Class A titles or National championships. This season, it was all about survival. Not to sound overdramatic, but due to an overall lack of participation in the sport of late, the school was considering pulling the plug on the program and Scandling took it upon himself to keep it breathing.
“I just didn’t want to see it end … at least not without giving it one more shot,” said Scandling. And so the former Big Green mat mentor, who had stepped away from his coaching duties three years ago, returned to the helm to save and win – in that order.
Now, three months later, he can look back and declare mission accomplished. “We were able to reestablish a base for future success,” said Scandling.
It didn’t take him very long to figure that out, either. Once the patient’s prognosis went up on the bulletin board with an accompanying sign-up sheet, “I knew we were no longer a dead man walking,” quipped Scandling, as he greeted 19 enrollees on the first day of practice. And if they all stick with it, the program won’t be needing and more mouth-to-mouth resuscitation for quite some time. This year’s roster consisted of two seniors, four juniors, nine sophomores and four freshmen.
One of those juniors was Asu Billigren, who was the first girl to join the Deerfield wrestling ranks since back in the 90’s. She wrestled in the 126-pound weight bracket.
“You gotta give her a lot of credit,” said Scandling. “She came to practice every day and she never backed down from anyone. She showed a lot of spunk and she earned the boys respect for it.”
Gene Thagard (’15) was the lone Big Green wrestler who earned a trip to the National Prep Tournament at Lehigh University this winter. The invite followed a fifth-place finish in what Scandling described as “an extremely tough 126-pound weight class.”
Sloan Damon (’13) wrapped up his prep school wrestling career in the 152-pound weight class with a regular-season record of 14-1, and was the recipient of the Deerfield Academy Wrestling Trophy for his accomplishments. Kade Johnson (’14), meanwhile, drew a fourth deed at the New England tournament in the 170-pound weight bracket.