Greg Lazor has been coaching for about 15 years, including a seven-year stint in a program in North Carolina he helped start, but nothing prepared him for the challenges he faced in the preseason and early part of the 2011-12 season as Chestnut Ridge's coach.
First there was the awful news on Oct. 13 - the night before the football team's homecoming game - that senior Brian Corle, a member of the football and wrestling teams, had died in a vehicle accident.
Lazor and his team had to find a way to deal with Corle's passing, but first there was mourning.
"It's the toughest thing I've ever gone though," Lazor said. "It was a good week that I would cry on a daily basis when something would just pop in my head. You never expected anything like that to happen to such a good, young man. The team really helped me through it. It's something we didn't shy away from. We embraced by saying 'Hey, we're going to live with Brian is this new way.'
The new ways were pointing to the ceiling as the team ran out to the mat clad in T-shirts that read ALL IN B.JC. 2011. There was also a billboard not far from the school with a wrestling team photo and a big picture of Corle. A miniature version of the billboard hangs just above the entrance to Richard W. Fisher Gymnasium. There were also stickers on their headgear honoring Corle.
"It was very tough because we missed Brian," Lazor said, "but as a team we were never discouraged. It's not something we had to draw kids out of every practice. Our wrestling room has a lot of faith. I think our faith really got us through a lot of things. We prayed a lot of different times. It pulled us together to where we didn't have a whole lot of bad days because of it."
Mirror coaches of the year
11-12Greg LazorChestnut Ridge
08-09 Brian CrepsBedford
05-06Jim ClarkChestnut Ridge
02-03Jan ClarkNorthern Bedford
01-02Doug FogelPenn Cambria
92-93Tom VauxCentral Cambria
90-91Harry MurphyCam. Heights
89-90Harry MurphyCam. Heights
87-88Jan ClarkTussey Mountain
Jan ClarkTussey Mountain
83-84Jan ClarkTussey Mountain
There weren't a lot of bad days on the mat for the Lions and Lazor. They went 26-6, set the school record for wins in a season and most likely the District 5 record, won the Richland Duals and won the District 5 individual tournament for the first time since 1983. Lazor was voted District 5 Coach of the Year.
Lazor has also been named the Altoona Mirror's Coach of the Year for his part in guiding his team through some tough times and improving it as the season progressed.
"It means a lot. It's a great honor," Lazor said following a Mirror all-star photo shoot. "There are a lot of great coaches out there, so to be given the honor is quite humbling and very exciting."
One of those coaches was Bedford's Brian Creps, who had been named Coach of the Year the last five years. Creps, whose team finished the year ranked No. 1 in the Mirror rankings ahead of No. 2 Ridge, and Philipsburg-Osceola coach Tim McCamley, whose third-ranked team went 15-3 and had a winning record for the first time since 2000, were also considered.
But the deciding factor for Lazor was the ground the Lions made up from the first time they wrestled Bedford to the second in the District 5 Duals title match. Bedford pounded Ridge, 59-16, on Dec. 22, but the second match, won by Bedford, 29-24, came down to the last bout.
"We have a lot of young guys," Lazor said. "We had three starting freshmen, so at the beginning of the year, we were a little wet behind the ears. But we got better, worked hard and continued to improve. We were young in the sense that got caught in some awe moments, and I think the first time we got caught in one of those moments was against Bedford."
"The first time, we didn't wrestle near what we had at the end," said Ridge junior 170-pounder Tyler Dibert, who is a Mirror first-team all-star for the second time. "After that, we all started working harder. We did different things after practice and before to get better."
The Lions came in second at the Chambersburg Duals, and then they won the Richland Duals by rallying from a 20-6 hole to beat District 5 foe Somerset, 31-23.
Ridge finished second at the rugged Thomas Subaru Tournament, and it carried that momentum into the Duals and individual tournament. The momentum came to a screeching halt at the Southwest Regional, where Lazor had hopes of winning the team title. The Lions finished eighth.
"We had a big goal that we wanted to win districts, we did that, and I think the boys were excited," Lazor said. "I don't think they gave up by any means after that, but I think they got happy after that. They either lost focus or got in awe of regionals. I know we're much better than we showed there. We're going to fix it and learn from it and hopefully come back next year and do something even better."
This season has Lazor looking forward to next season.
"Can't wait," he said.