Nick Garber remembers what the Waynesburg University wrestling program was before Ron Headlee took over as head coach in 2008.
After graduating from Waynesburg Central High School, where Headlee guided him as an assistant coach, Garber began his college wrestling career in 2007. Garber had planned on attending a bigger school before he was ruled ineligible to wrestle at either the Division I or II level due to an error regarding Garber’s high school transcripts. When he arrived at Waynesburg University, he was well aware of the state that the once-proud program was in.
There was a time when the Waynesburg wrestling program was at a level where a loss to Ohio State was enough to earn first-year head coach Clayton Ketterling an effigy hanging after his first match as head coach in 1963. Its stability was such where it had just two head coaches between 1947 and 1977. But between 2005-2008, the program had more head coaches—three—than wins—two.
“There wasn’t any structure,” Garber said. “There was no format to a practice. You just kind of got together and wrestled live. There was no drill, there wasn’t a technique.”
Garber would have left the university after his freshman year, when the team went winless, if not for Headlee, a man already well established in Greene County wrestling, or as current senior Tristan Buxton describes him, a “local legend,” and who Garber knew from an early age.
By the time Garber graduated, he became Headlee’s first All-American and starred on Headlee’s first two Presidents’ Athletic Conference championship teams as a junior in the 2010 season and senior on the 2011 team.
Since then, Headlee has continued what Garber witnessed him start, leading the Jackets to regional prominence.
As he sits in his office on the third floor of the Rudy Marisa Fieldhouse, Headlee doesn’t have to look far for reminders of his success as head coach of the Yellow Jackets.
To the left of Headlee’s desk, eight frames hang on the wall to represent the total All-American honors that seven Yellow Jacket wrestlers have received in his time at Waynesburg. To the right is a replica of the banner that hangs in the gym recognizing Waynesburg’s five Presidents’ Athletic Conference Championships, all of which happened under Headlee’s tenure.
“I don’t think I’m any better than anybody else,” Headlee said. “Somebody else could come in here and do this job a lot better than me.”
Despite his success, the program still isn’t where Headlee wants it to be. Since joining the NCAA from the NAIA in 1990, Waynesburg has never had a national champion.
There have been some close calls. Alex Crown (’13) and Sam Guidi (’15) each placed fourth at the national tournament, and Anthony Bonaventura (’14) was a national runner-up his senior year. But since Tony Gusic and Mike Zrimm were NAIA champs in 1965, when Headlee was growing up in Brave, Pennsylvania, located about 25 minutes away from Waynesburg, a wrestler has never reached the wrestling mountaintop, a national title.
Headlee knows what it’s like to witness one of his athletes reach that type of peak, and he wants to see it happen again, this time at the college level. When he was the head coach at nearby Jefferson-Morgan High School from 1988-97, he helped Cary Kolat to a perfect career, winning four state titles without ever losing a match. But coaching at a Division III school makes finding athletes like Kolat difficult, if not impossible. Instead, Headlee finds wrestlers who didn’t reach the pinnacle in high school, but still have the chance to be a PAC champion, and All-American and one day a national champion.
A textbook example of Headlee’s formula is Luke Lohr. Lohr never placed at the Pennsylvania state tournament while at Somerset High School. He went on to become Headlee’s only two-time All-American, as well as a three-time national qualifier and four-time PAC champion. The same can be said for Crown, who also never placed at the state tournament. He went on to follow Garber as Headlee’s second All-American. Headlee thrives on bringing in these athletes, who didn’t peak in high school, and helps them grow in college.
“They still have that drive to get to the highest level,” Headlee said. “They wanted to be a state champ in high school and didn’t reach it, but they could still be a national champ when it comes to college. I just think that we have guys that are just still trying to do that. They’re still trying to take that highest step that they can. That’s the kind of guy I recruit.”
Although Headlee is soft spoken, when he is at work sitting behind the mat inside the Rudy Marisa Fieldhouse, that aspect of his personality goes out the window.
“I can hear coach Headlee ringing through my head gear,” Buxton said. “He’s very animated whenever we start wrestling. He starts freaking out. You can’t help but listen to him.”
Headlee is vocal when his athletes are competing, for Gennaro Bonaventura, a former wrestler and current assistant under Headlee, the head coach doesn’t need a high level of intensity on a daily basis for his wrestlers to know what he wants.
“He gets on you now,” said Bonaventura. “He’s not afraid to tell you how it is. He’s a very good public speaker, and he expects a lot out of you, and the wrestlers know that. So, he doesn’t have to say as much. The wrestlers already know.”
Before every season, Headlee holds a team meeting, during which the expectations for the journey ahead are laid down. According to Bonaventura, there isn’t a lot that Headlee has to say for his athletes to know what the “Jacket Up Standard,” is. The fact that Headlee has had 10 academic All-Americans—more than athletic All-Americans proves that his athletes have met this requirement. As for wrestling, the standard is straight forward; work hard every day, and eventually—hopefully—become a national champion.
Headlee grew up in a “boom” period for wrestling in Greene County, graduating from Waynesburg Central in 1978.
Headlee described himself as a “country boy” growing up in a farm town. Largely due to his frame, Headlee wasn’t a jack of all trades when it came to sports. But he began wrestling at a young age, and found a passion for the sport. Headlee’s wrestling career, both at the high school and college level, parallels that of the athletes he thrives on recruiting.
In both his junior and senior seasons, the flu betrayed Headlee. As a junior in high school, Headlee caught the virus before the state tournament his, drawing the No. 1 seed and lost. In his senior year, Headlee was ill during the regional tournament and failed to qualify for states.
He went on to Messiah College, where he became one of the best in the country, winning 101 matches and placing fifth in the NCAA Tournament his senior year. As a college athlete, Headlee was the type of kid he tries to recruit: a late-bloomer—someone who could peak in college.
Headlee knows full well the experience of falling short of a goal. His son, Drew, experienced a different kind of heartbreak.
After becoming a state champion in his junior season at Waynesburg Central, Drew Headlee failed to even qualify for the state tournament in his final season. Headlee has told Buxton this story several times, and Buxton uses it as a lesson that success isn’t easy to repeat.
Before taking over at Waynesburg, Headlee spent 13 years coaching high school wrestling in Greene County, most notably at Jefferson Morgan, where he led the Rockets to five WPIAL titles. After that, he worked with close friend John Yates as an assistant at Waynesburg Central high school.
Headlee was initially offered the Waynesburg University head coaching job in 2005, but turned it down due to his sons, Ethan and Drew, who is now an assistant at the University of Pittsburgh-both being in college. When he was offered again two years later, he accepted.
In Headlee’s first season, the Jackets went from winless to 10-4 and finished second in the PAC. The next year, Waynesburg won its first conference title.
Then another in 2010-11.
Then another in 2012-13.
Then two more in 2013-14 and 2016-17.
The PAC tournament is followed by the NCAA Division III Mideast Regionals and then the National Championships. To Headlee, when Waynesburg gets to nationals, the focus shifts from team goals to individual goals.
“Once we get to the national tournament, it isn’t so much about highlights anymore, it’s ‘hey, we want to make All-Americans,’” Headlee said. “I like to see those guys accomplish what you work for in the room every day.”
For all of Headlee’s accomplishments, which also include coaching wrestlers to nine regional individual titles, 35 PAC individual titles and four PAC outstanding wrestler awards, he still has accomplishments to cross off the list. His goal is still to coach a national champion, and to get Waynesburg wrestling back to where it was when he was growing up.
For all that Lohr achieved in his time at Waynesburg, there are still things he wishes he could have accomplished. He was never a national champion. He didn’t achieve All-American status his junior year, and because of this, it is hard for him to be satisfied with the way his career turned out.
“I never made it to that national championship that coach Headlee always motived me with and said I could make it there,” Lohr said. “I want to feel accomplished and grateful for what I accomplished with the team, but at the same time, I’m a little upset.”
The year before Headlee began his run as head coach, the quantity of athletes for the program was so sparse that without hesitation Garber could name six of its eight members over a decade later.
Today, 28 men make up the roster. But Headlee was raised not to get caught up in success, and he is always striving to help his athletes make history at Waynesburg University.
Buxton, a graduate of Trinity high school, started learning from Headlee when he was in the eighth grade. This season is his final chance to become a national champion. For Buxton, it would mean the world to both him, and his head coach.
“If I ever become a national champion, I’m going to cry for like three hours,” Buxton said. “It’s just something I dream about. I sleep, I eat it, I breathe it…I look in the mirror all the time and say, “you’re going to be a national champ.” You have to have that mentality; you have to believe it. Winning for Headlee, to be a part of that, to be a national champ, would just mean the world to me, and I think it would mean the world for him too.”