2014-01-22 / Sports

Remembering the Titans

After 307 career wins, Cosby’s wrestling coach eyes the next big challenge
By Jim McConnell

Cosby wrestling coach Mike Stefanko (left) works on a move with one of his wrestlers during a recent practice. 
Jim McConnell/Chesterfield Observer Cosby wrestling coach Mike Stefanko (left) works on a move with one of his wrestlers during a recent practice. Jim McConnell/Chesterfield Observer Other than a few gray hairs creeping into his goatee, Mike Stefanko doesn’t look old enough to have accumulated 307 career victories as a high school wrestling coach.

But the passage of time hit Stefanko like a well-executed takedown when he recently encountered one of his former wrestlers at a local restaurant.

The young man, who was the first district champion Stefanko coached at Meadowbrook High 16 years ago, is in his 30s now and has a wife and children.

“Unbelievable” was how Stefanko described both the chance meeting and the speed with which the last two decades have unfolded.

“It’s fun to see how they change and mature,” he said of the teenagers he’s coached at three Chesterfield high schools. “I don’t think of them as grown-ups; I always remember them as kids.”

Many names and faces have come and gone since Stefanko joined the coaching staff at Meadowbrook as an assistant in 1994, but he’s still going strong.

After two years as Meadowbrook’s head coach, eight years at Clover Hill and eight more at Cosby, Stefanko claimed his 300th career victory Jan. 4 when the Titans beat Varina.

Cosby Activities Director Ted Salmon said that Stefanko has been successful because of “good old-fashioned hard work and dedication.”

“He is committed to the success of the program and also each wrestler in it,” Salmon added. “Our students know that he is going to work them hard, but treat them fairly and give them the opportunity to be successful.”

While he acknowledged that the day-today responsibilities of leading a varsity high school program can be “a grind,” Stefanko said he still gets butterflies in his stomach every time his wrestlers take the mat.

“You want to see your kids succeed, so when they get their first win or their first title, it makes the five days a week, three hours a day practices worth it,” he added. “It makes me want to go out and do it all over again the next day.”

Stefanko credited his wife, Beth, for being patient with the crazy schedule he keeps during wrestling season. Between the first weekend of December and late February, he’s away from home every weekend at one tournament or another.

That’s in addition to teaching all day and leading after-school workouts, meetings, fundraisers and all other organized team activities.

Stefanko also noted that his teams’ success over the years would not have been possible without the contributions of longtime assistant coach Ed Metzger.

Together for the past 16 years, Stefanko and Metzger won five Dominion District titles at Clover Hill and added seven more at Cosby before the Virginia High School League’s realignment plan did away with districts altogether.

Salmon said that Stefanko and Metzger make a great team “because they share the same values and have tremendous respect for each other.”

Both men have faced the challenge of coaching their sons since moving from Clover Hill to Cosby when the latter opened in 2006.

Stefanko built a close relationship with Metzger’s son, Matt, before he graduated in 2011. Now Metzger is returning the favor by working with Stefanko’s older son, Logan, who earned a spot in the Titans’ starting lineup as a freshman.

“It’s funny that two people can be saying the same thing, but kids hear it differently,” Stefanko said.

“With your own kid, you’re always walking a fine line between being too hard and not being hard enough,” he added. “Logan and I made a deal that once we get in the car after practice and we’re headed home, wrestling is done and we don’t talk about it.”

Logan Stefanko is one of as many as nine underclassmen who have been in Cosby’s starting lineup at various points this season. Despite their youth, the Titans have compiled a 14-7 record in dual matches heading into a tournament Friday at Loudoun Valley High in Northern Virginia.

But while Cosby was perennially one of the top wrestling programs in the Dominion District, the Virginia High School League placed the Titans in a conference with a number of quality opponents – including Franklin County and Patrick Henry-Roanoke.

To qualify for the state 6A tournament, the Titans will have to place in the top four in their respective weight classes at a sectional tournament that also includes wrestlers from state powers such as Colonial Forge, Cox, Forest Park and Grassfield high schools.

“That’s our next challenge,” Stefanko said. “We have to raise our level to catch up with those guys.”

But then, Stefanko hasn’t won 307 career matches in high school wrestling by running from a challenge.

“I’m excited about what’s up ahead,” he added. “We may take our lumps this year, but I think the future is bright.”

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