By: Dr. Richard Micap, President, Garrett College
McHENRY – John Chambers likes the idea of being a trailblazer.
"We're the first in Maryland JuCo and we're setting our own path," said Chambers, recently hired to bring intercollegiate wrestling to Garrett College. "Hopefully one day that path will become a model for others."
Athletics Director Dennis Gibson – who knows something about building a program, having created a consistent men's basketball title contender at GC – said he believes Chambers is the right person to build the state's first junior college wrestling program.
"It's a big undertaking – lots of logistics involved in starting a wrestling program, managing and organizing the recruiting and contact database, and running practices. John's organizational abilities and his background in counseling at-risk youth had a big impact on the search committee," said Gibson, noting Chambers' work as a youth services recreation director and an employment/transition counselor.
"We think John's going to be an excellent recruiter and his experience working with junior college student athletes is a big plus," added Gibson. "He understands the students who come to Garrett and is really committed to them succeeding in life as well as in sports."
Chambers has hit the ground running, including recruiting at large-scale high school tournaments throughout West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Maryland. He expects to heavily recruit those states as well as Ohio, but with a special emphasis on offering Garrett County wrestlers an opportunity to continue their wrestling careers after high school.
"I'll never turn a Garrett County student away that wants to come and try to wrestle for us," said Chambers, whose program will launch in the 2018-19 academic year that starts in September. "They will be getting a quality experience and a chance to get on the mat as freshmen rather than sitting behind upper classmen at four-year institutions."
The new head coach said wrestling provides a unique recruiting challenge, given the 10 different weight classes that need to be filled.
"I try to recruit kids where I see them wrestling at a comfortable weight," said Chambers, who hopes to have at least two wrestlers per weight class to provide depth and ensure a challenging practice environment.
Most of Chambers' formal coaching experience has been in baseball, including five years as head coach at Preston (W.Va.) High before starting at Garrett College as a part-time baseball assistant coach. But Chambers, who was an all-conference baseball player at Bluefield State College, said wrestling has long been his passion.
"I wrestled for conditioning and the strength aspect during college while training for baseball," said Chambers. "I played baseball in college with guys who had been state wrestling champions in Maryland. Then each summer I would wrestle in open tournaments, particularly in Virginia."
Chambers' baseball coaching resume was impressive, as he led Preston High to consecutive sectional championships along with the first winning season in the school's long history. Eric Hallenbeck, GC's head baseball coach, lauded the coaching skills he's seen in Chambers as his assistant.
"His attention to detail and his work ethic are second to none," said Hallenbeck. "When we first started together, he wanted to know everything about running a college program from recruiting to fundraising to scheduling."
Hallenbeck added that Chambers has qualities that can't be taught.
"John cares about students not just as athletes but as people," said Hallenbeck. "Our job as coaches is to develop the overall student athlete – athletically, academically and socially – while helping them develop into quality young adults. That's exactly what he'll do with his wrestlers."
Chambers is excited about pivoting his coaching career from baseball to wrestling and moving into a full-time position with the college, where he is also served as coordinator of operations for athletics.
"I've been around wrestling for 30 years," said Chambers, noting his brothers and other close family members wrestled extensively. "I feel starting the wrestling program, recruiting quality kids and offering them a quality experience is something I can give back to the kids and give back to the college community."
Hallenbeck expects Chambers to meet the challenges inherent in starting a brand-new program.
"Starting a program from scratch is not easy," acknowledged Hallenbeck, "but there is no question in my mind that he will put together a program that Garrett College and the community will be proud of."