By Nathan Leakway
HEAD wrestling coach Duane Bastress walks into his office on the second floor of Grumbacher every morning carrying a stuffed gym bag and a large jug of water, signs of a coaching style that still – after nine seasons at the helm of the wrestling program – is decidedly hands-on.
“I’m on the mat every day,” he says, “at least until this body says ‘no more.’”
More signs of a life dedicated to the sport are immediately apparent. Yes, there’s the cauliflower ears and the strong handshake, but also the unique combination of a quiet, earned confidence and a genuine desire to lift those around him. It’s a quality that is evident in so many individuals who find success in what Bastress calls “the world’s greatest sport.”
Bastress’ relationship with wrestling began in junior high when some teammates on the football team who wrestled in the off-season approached him and said the squad was looking for a 115-pounder. At those first few practices, the junior high coach gave Bastress clear instructions: Tackle everybody, then let them up.
“Within a couple of practices, I was hooked,” Bastress says.
Following a trip to the state wrestling tournament in his junior year of high school, the phone started ringing, as colleges throughout Pennsylvania began looking at Bastress as a possible freshman recruit. After a brief stint at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania, Bastress transferred to York College.
As a Spartan, wrestling under Hall of Fame coach Tom Kessler, Bastress took home two Division III National Championships in 2005 and 2006. He went 40-0 his senior year, graduating with a collegiate record of 114-12 and capping his college career with a 65-match winning streak.
Bastress himself was inducted into the NWCA Division III Hall of Fame at the 2013 Division III National Championships in Iowa. And he and his wife April, a former standout field hockey player at York College, are one of only two husband and wife duos to earn induction in the Spartan Hall of Fame.
In a sport as unforgiving as wrestling, these accolades speak volumes. They certainly spoke to Jared Bair, a junior Supply Chain Management major and the 157-pound starter for the 2022-23 Spartans, who saw Bastress as a potential mentor.
“I decided to come to YCP because of how welcoming and accoladed Duane is,” Bair says. “He really puts everything into his job and into helping us be the best we can be in our time as a student athlete.”
Bastress holds bi-weekly meetings with each athlete he coaches in order to stay up to date on how his wrestlers are doing both on and off the mat.
For Bastress, this mentorship is an extension of what he received under Kessler and his assistant coach, Mark Lentz. “They were great for me. Both Kessler and Lentz were fundamental in my development,” Bastress says.
Bastress stayed on following his senior year as an assistant coach under Kessler. “I didn’t really enjoy the heartbreak of coaching,” Bastress says “but every year [Kessler] just kept giving me a little bit more responsibility until I took over.”
That was in 2013, when a hazing incident thrust the program into the public eye. For Bastress, the incident was an opportunity to recommit to the kind of culture he wanted to bring to YCP as the new head coach. He was hired in the summer of that year.
“It made us take a hard look at everybody and at everything,” Bastress says. “It shaped what we were trying to build.”
Bastress and his coaching staff are still building. The most recent addition is the women’s wrestling program, which will begin competing in the 2023-24 school year.
Another recent addition is lead assistant Brian Gross, who will have the task of leading the new women’s squad next year.
Gross also has a long history in the sport. He began wrestling in third grade and wrestled all the way through college, donning the Spartan Green singlet from 1989-93. After graduation, an originally unplanned transition into coaching soon began blossoming into a life-long passion. “I’ve been in wrestling for 40-some years,” Gross says. “I’m a lifer.”
For the last 15 years, Gross was the head wrestling coach at West York Area High School. When news came about YCP’s new women’s program, Gross knew he had to be a part of it.
“When the women’s program was taking off, and they were looking for a coach, [I knew] I needed to get in there and coach the women,” Gross says.
Bastress was a large part of that decision too. “We’ve talked over the years and have always had a good relationship,” Gross says. “He’s a great mentor. I’ve been doing this a long time, but I’m still learning every day. We’ve got a melting pot of coaches here, and I’m learning from these guys.”
Gross has three daughters. One of those is Carly, who became the first commit to Lock Haven’s women’s wrestling program in 2019. His youngest, Chloe, is one of three commits, along with McKenna Acampora and Lilli Greene, to the women’s team. They are already on the mat training right alongside the men.
“I’ve been trying for years to get Chloe to come out and wrestle,” Gross says. “For eight years I’ve invited her out to open mats. Then coach Bastress decided to send her an email and she responded, ‘all right, I’ll try it.’ I’m proud of her for stepping out of her comfort zone.”
Chloe is a freshman Health Science major who plans on wrestling at 101 pounds next year. She credits Bastress and her father with helping her transition into a new sport.
“Coach Bastress and Coach Gross have helped me tremendously, from getting in shape, learning the basics, and feeling like I’m part of the team,” she says. “The guys have [also] been great at embracing the new women’s program. They always include us and make us feel like a part of the team.”
For Bastress, it is difficult to overstate how impactful it is to see young women on the mat.
“In our reality, you could argue that women’s wrestling has saved wrestling,” he says. “I’ve got two daughters, and they love hanging around ‘Daddy’s guys,’ but my oldest was in the room the other week, and to see three girls on the mat – now she’s like, ‘OK Daddy, I want to try wrestling.’”
It is this kind of influence that both Bastress and Gross are hoping the program will have on future female wrestlers.
“The girls we bring in will be the mentors for the next generation,” Bastress says. “They get to help build something new that’s never been done here, build a legacy and a tradition so that 10 years or so from now, they can look back and say that they were one of the first to wrestle here.”
In the meantime, Bastress, Gross, and the rest of the coaching staff are working to get the women ready, and they hope to hit the ground running next fall.
“We’re not easing into it,” Bastress says. “When we step out on the mat next fall, we want teams to see that York is for real, that we’re taking this very seriously.”
Says Gross, “We want to compete right away. We want to bring girls in who want to compete and win now.” Bastress heard that and decided to chime in. “And hopefully we can bring home an All-American or two.”
Of course, that’s getting a bit ahead of things. Right now, the focus remains on the men’s team, which opened the season Nov. 5 with a fifth-place finish out of 11 teams and seven place winners at the Ned McGinley Invitational. No. 3 Dalton Rohrbaugh (133) and No. 2 Camden Farrow (197) led the way for York as they both defended their Ned McGinely titles from last year.
A week later, they finished fifth out of 14 teams with two champions and four place winners at the Bill Racich Rumble at Ursinus College. They opened their dual season Nov. 16 with a 31-12 loss to TCNJ. Among the bright spots was a Jared Kuhns first-period fall over #9 Ryan Rosenthal at 125 pounds after just 2:42 of wrestling and Rohrbaugh winning 10-4 over Daniel Hong after stepping up a class to 141 pounds.
The Spartans will return to the mat for the New Standard Invitational on Friday, Dec. 2, in Grumbacher.
Nathan Leakway is a sophomore majoring in Professional Writing.