In 28 years, wrestling club produced 48 state champs

J. Patrick Eaken

        From 2000-05, Waite was the dominant team in Toledo City League wrestling, and that was when St. John’s, St. Francis, Whitmer and Central Catholic were in the mix.   
        There might not have even been a Waite wrestling team had it not been for Gary Burgess.
        In 1992, Burgess, Hector Ramirez and his brother Earl Ramirez started the East Toledo Wrestling Club.
        The club continued through 2018, and during those 26 years it produced 39 Ohio high school state champions. There have been dozens more state placers and even a national champion — Waite high school state placer Antonio Guerra went on to win two NCAA Division II championships for the University of Findlay in 2005 and 2006 and is now the head coach at Defiance College.
        In addition, there were 27 grade school state champions, five two-time grade school state champions, 18 junior high state champs, one three-time junior high state champ and 27 tournaments of champions and placers.
        “It’s amazing how committed Gary has always been with all his wrestlers and all the challenges he has had to endure.  He’s been a committed person. I quit this program about five years ago and my brother about seven, but Gary has been committed all these years,” Hector Ramirez said.
        Burgess, who is now under treatment for cancer but was still helping at Clay, remembers how it got started.
        “The Waite High School wrestling team was going down in numbers to a point they were thinking about canceling wrestling out there. Being an ex-Wrestler from Waite myself, as soon as I got out of the Army I started coaching again,” Burgess said.
        “I went over and talked to the athletic director and I asked him to give us a chance and I’ll start a youth club and get you a feeder system into the high school. That’s how we got started. I got a hold of Hector and his brother Earl and Herman (Obitua) — all actually ex-Waite wrestlers and I told them what I’d like to do and see if we can get something going.”
        Once the first group of freshman wrestlers reached Waite, City League championships started to happen. Meanwhile, in the offseason, the ETWC was taking wrestlers to events all over the country.
        “We went to Oklahoma nationals, we went down to Columbus and helped run tournaments, and I also have a picture of my coaching staff winning nationals down in Tennessee,” Burgess said.
        “It was to be 78 wrestlers in five divisions, and we had 10 of the best wrestlers in the nation, and Tennessee called and they wanted Ohio to come for sure. In fact, some of the other states didn’t want to come unless Ohio came. So, they threw that at me, and I put it together and we won it.”
        Waite coach Carmen Amenta was the first benefactor of the program at the varsity level.
        “He got a whole group of kids that were coming there because of the East Toledo program and because of them starting when they were little,” Tracy Garufos said. “He did great things with them, too, and the kids there loved him just like they loved Gary. The only thing Gary had been doing this whole thing on his own, started it, and kept it going strong.”
        The ETWC started with 13 kids training in an East Toledo Family Center classroom. Three years later, it was up to 60 kids so it moved into Waite High School and then later into a building on Chelsea Avenue. It was also funded through a reverse raffle every year with parents required to sell tickets. There would even be a banquet with a disc jockey and dancing.
        Because of grant funding and private contributions from banks and sponsors, some gotten through former city council member Bob McCloskey, they had to allow athletes from all over the city to come in.
        “It got to a point where we had kids coming from all over. We had kids coming from Monroe, Michigan and we took them all in,” Burgess said.
Dealing with the elements
        Waite is still winning championships with former ETWC wrestlers, and it was always Burgess who kept the program strong.
        “Gary was always still going strong with this club. Many of us had come and gone — I was the program coordinator but he probably had 10 program coordinators, he probably had 15 different coaches, but we came and went. This man, on his own, has been the success in keeping this darn thing going,” said Tracy Garufos. “There were so many kids that stuck out. So many clubs have started and finished, and this guy just pecked away at it to keep it going.
        “You don’t get a better coach than that — you can’t find one. And, it’s just his dedication to the kids and to the wrestling. He’s just a super, great man to be around. The team was such a great thing to be a part of because I met so many lifelong friends and kids, and to this day I still have kids running to me and they remember me, but they are full grown men now and they just don’t look the same.”
        Plus, for many wrestlers, there were issues at home, or the family did not have the money to send their wrestler traveling across the country.
        “Some of those kids wouldn’t have had the opportunity to go onto college or to be successful in everyday life because of where they were coming from,” Hector Ramirez said. “We loved the sport and we knew that the east side had a lot of talent.
        “We had national champions, state champs — we had a lot of tough kids come through that program,” Ramirez continued. “It was tough to see because we knew that we had a hand in this, but we knew that we had to give some of these kids positive direction that they didn’t get at home, and mentoring. We were people who actually cared about the kids and we even helped them out that way. We even paid their entry fees and hotel rooms and stuff.”
        The program got so much attention that in 2005, ESPN did a 50-minute segment about it which can still be viewed on YouTube. They focused on East Toledo youth wrestlers Mario and Moises Guillen, whose father was serving time in prison. Moises won two state championships and Mario one wrestling for Perrysburg.
        “The Guillens are tough. They came through some stuff,” Hector said. “They highlighted Mario and Moses because their father was doing time and the mother and the uncle were very instrumental in keeping them in wrestling, traveling with them, and that’s the reason why they got really good.”

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