By Pam Shebest
Special for Second Half
BATTLE CREEK — Dave Studer knew he was too small to play varsity football in high school, and when someone approached him about wrestling, “I had no clue what it was,” he said.
“I thought they did it in a ring like pro wrestling.”
That was in the early 1960s at Port Huron High School. Intrigued, Studer decided to try it and got hooked.
In fact, he got so hooked, he is now in his 54th year as head wrestling coach at Battle Creek Harper Creek.
Although he is still going strong, he does not get down on the mats to grapple with his wrestlers any more. That is the job of assistant coach Joe Yurisich.
“I’m their practice dummy most of the days,” Yurisich said, laughing.
Studer, 75, has received many accolades, including induction into the Harper Creek High School Hall of Fame and Michigan Wrestling Association Hall of Fame.
But there is one thing missing from his resume – a trip to the MHSAA Team Finals.
This year’s are Feb. 28-29 at Wings Stadium in Kalamazoo.
“The first two years I coached, I had some outstanding teams, but they didn’t have a team state meet at that time,” Studer said. (The team championship format was created in 1988.)
“One of the best teams I ever had, every kid won 80 percent of their matches, but we didn’t have any kind of team thing.”
Last week, the Beavers took a 17-3 record into Districts, winning their fifth consecutive title. They defeated Richland Gull Lake 46-24, then swept Vicksburg 84-0.
The Beavers will host Plainwell today in a Division 2 Regional first-round match.
After wrestling for four years at Western Michigan University, Studer graduated and had a government job when he got a phone call in 1967.
“They said Harper Creek’s wrestling coach was in an accident and they needed somebody to stand in for a little bit,” he said. “I said, ‘Sure I’ll do that.’
“My very first match, we just got beat terrible. I thought, maybe I’m not doing things right but I kept working at it. By the end of the season, we won the Regional Championship.”
The school district offered Studer the position and a job teaching physical education at the elementary school, and that sealed the deal.
He eventually taught psychology, then physical education and weightlifting at the high school, retiring from the classroom in 2001.
“I just like the people and the community,” he said. “We had a lot of support. The young men I was getting were good, hard-working kids.
“I had some other opportunities to go other places but I told them no, I was real happy right here.”
He still feels that way after 54 years. Things change of course, and one he’d like to see switch back are more opportunities for dual meets – the team had only two home meets this year but used to have six to eight, which provided more opportunities to create excitement for the sport in the community.
Plus, one of those past duals remains among his favorite memories.
“We were wrestling Lakeview at the old high school,” he said. “We had over 2,700 people come to that dual meet.
“The fire marshal turned away over 300 people. That’s why I like dual meets. People had to sit on the gym floor because we ran out of bleachers.”
Studer coached the fathers of many of his wrestlers, including Yurisich, who graduated from Harper Creek and Olivet College in the early 2000s.
“There really hasn’t been much change since I was in school,” Yurisich said. “The cool thing is that my father (Steve), who was (Studer’s) assistant a few years ago, also wrestled for Coach Studer.”
Steve Yurisich graduated in 1978 “so he wrestled for him in a different era,” his son said.
“We’ve had conversations. (Studer’s) mentality for the sport and his passion for the kids has never changed since my father can remember from ’78 to present day.”
Senior Trevor Brooks, who wrestles at 145 pounds, said he has learned a lot from Studer.
“He brings a lot of emotion and intensity and pride,” Brooks said. “We have to keep that pride up, knowing that we’re a good team and we have to keep the tradition going.
“I’ve learned a lot of life skills from him. You should never take a moment for granted because any given moment it can be taken from you because of injury. You just have to go out there and wrestle like it’s your last match.”
Yurisich, who teaches fifth grade math and science at the middle school, said Studer is in it for the kids.
Brooks joins seniors Greylon Dishman, Chandler Froehlich, Aspen Tyler Kortz, Jaden Mainstone and Ethan Shipley. Juniors are Brian DeJesus Castellanos Camacho, Joseph Edmonds, Easton Kolassa, Jake Pancoft, Noah Szarejko, Bryce Trimm and Merritt Wilson. The team’s lone sophomore is Matthew Martinez, and freshmen are Zachary Egan and Nicholas Martinez.
“The biggest thing that I notice as a coach and didn’t necessarily notice as a kid is he’s always trying to make the kid a better person later on in life, not necessarily at what they’re doing at the moment,” Yurisich said.
“Making sure that we grow good, young men, rather than just grow wrestlers.”
The outpouring of love from his wrestlers and supporters was evident four years ago when Studer was honored during his 50th year of coaching.
The school raised more than $40,000 for a scholarship and new wrestling mat.
Studer has not wavered from his original way of coaching.
“We worked a lot on mental training, getting mentally tough, not on winning and losing,” he said.
“I’ve never faulted kids when they get beat. I tell them it’s not the end of the world, it’s just one wrestling match. You’ve got your whole life to be a winner.”
Working with the athletes is what keeps him going.
“I enjoy it,” he said. “When I get to a point where I don’t enjoy it or I don’t think I’m doing a good job, then I will retire.”
Pam Shebest served as a sportswriter at the Kalamazoo Gazette from 1985-2009 after 11 years part-time with the Gazette while teaching French and English at White Pigeon High School. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org with story ideas for Calhoun, Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Battle Creek Harper Creek sophomore Matthew Martinez locks up an opponent this season. (Middle) From left, coach Dave Studer, assistant Joe Yurisich and senior Trevor Brooks. (Below) Studer talks things over with senior Greylon Dishman. (Action photos by Jennifer Brooks; head shots by Pam Shebest.)