Canfield wrestling will miss Conley

The sport of wrestling has lost some great coaches over the last few years, specifically in the Mahoning Valley.

In 2015, two of the area’s all-time great high school wrestling coaches, Jackson-Milton’s Dave Tomaino and Austintown Fitch’s Brett Powell, retired after illustrious careers that included multiple state champions and nearly 500 career victories.

A more recent departure might not be as storied or provide the same swan song as those two legends, who let it be known they were retiring in advance, but this one is equally significant — and saddening.

Canfield’s Dean Conley just recently retired after 18 seasons leading the Cardinals, and what makes his exit so shocking is that he does it in the midst of the most dominating era in Canfield wrestling history.

Conley and the Cardinals were dominating the last two seasons, setting league and school records by finishing as runners-up in Division II of the OHSAA State Wrestling Tournament. They crowned two different state champions in back-to-back years for the first time in school history. They won three of the last four league titles in one of the state’s most competitive and balanced conferences — the Eastern Ohio Wrestling League — and they did it with homegrown talent.

“What makes the state runner-up finishes so special, No. 1, was that we’re a closed public school,” Conley said. “Every one of those kids were part of our youth program, our junior high program. They came up through our system — every one one of those kids were part of our program.”

Most elite wrestling schools can’t say that. Ohio’s premier Division II wrestling school, St. Paris Graham, which has won 17 straight state titles, has blatantly brought in kids from other parts of the state — and country — to build a dynasty.

Parents often uproot their children from their hometowns to go to schools like Lakewood St. Edward, which has won the most state championships of any school in any division, and other places like Massillon Perry, Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary, Walsh Jesuit and Mentor Lake Catholic, just to name a few.

That didn’t happen at Canfield, according to Conley. The Cardinals’ era of dominance — which is probably going to continue — was built on the backs of Canfield kids.

“It’s tough to do,” Conley said, “but it can still be done.”

So why, after creating this homegrown monster of a program at the school he graduated from, is Conley walking away from what he believes might be the best team yet? The same reason almost every great coach steps away when other people feel they should stay: family.

Conley has a wife and an 8-year-old daughter who loves golf almost as much as Conley loves wrestling. The 45-year-old is tired of hearing about how she did and how her day went. He wants to be there to experience it for himself. Alex, his daughter, is a budding prodigy in the game of golf, and while Conley is just learning the game, he’s excited to learn about it with his daughter. It’s hard to blame a guy for leaving when that’s his reasoning.

That said, don’t expect a drop-off in expectations or results from Canfield. His replacement, Steve Pitts, is well-known in wrestling circuits. Also a Canfield graduate (2004), Pitts is a major reason the Cardinals are thriving at such a rapid rate. Well, he and about six or seven other coaches — several of whom were former head coaches. They make up a coaching staff that has more experience and, arguably, more knowledge than any other around.

Pitts has been at the forefront of the staff. A teacher within the school district, he spends his summers at various wrestling clubs and traveling to different major tournaments with kids from around Ohio. He’s a student of the game and played an integral role in helping the most decorated Canfield wrestler in school history, Georgio Poullas, become a four-time state placer and one-time champion. So, as long as he and this staff stick together, Canfield is going to continue be a state power.

As for Conley, something tells me he’ll remain involved in wrestling — probably as part of the EOWL commissioner’s office. Conley has been a great ambassador of the sport. He’s well-respected by fellow coaches, and he did things the right way — on and off the mat — at Canfield. He enjoys wrestling too much to simply walk away, and the sport, which is losing participants on a yearly basis, needs him as much as he needs it — even if he thinks otherwise.

“You get into (wrestling) to help people and to help young kids succeed and you end up getting just as much help along the way,” he said. “Wrestling has helped me way more than I helped it, which is why I still think I need to do more.”

That attitude is why hundreds of kids from Canfield would probably say Conley — and wrestling — have helped them plenty.