BY JEFF FALK
ANNVILLE – Adam Gilson, Wes Bankus and Jeff Inman wrestle from common ground.
Not only will Gilson, Bankus and Inman all be competing at Hershey’s Giant Center this weekend when the PIAA Wrestling Championships hit chocolatetown, the Cedar Crest Falcon, the Elco Raider and the Annville-Cleona Little Dutchman are all from Lebanon County. And if they’re wrestling in March and they’re from Lebanon County, then their careers have been influenced by the Lebanon County Mat Club.
That’s what the Lebanon County Mat Club has been doing for the past 15 years: providing local and area wrestlers an opportunity to take their disciplines to the next level. Combining expert instruction with a place to practice against like-minded competitors in a year-round venue affords ‘Bulldogs’ a chance to do great things, like qualifying for states.
Located in Annville, Lebanon County Mat Club was founded in 1998 by local wrestling guru Henry Killian. The private club is more than 70-members strong, ages five to 18, with connections to every scholastic program in Lebanon County, and as far away as Williams Valley and Ephrata.
To give one an idea of the influence that the Lebanon County Mat Club wields upon local wrestling, of the 14 champions crowned at last month’s Lebanon County tournament, 11 had previous ties with LCMC.
“It’s all about the kids,” said Killian. “And bringing wrestling to the area. You can wrestle all-year-round, but if you want to do it, you have to do it with us. It’s about being an ambassador of the sport.
“It’s (starting young) key. Key,” continued Killian. “I believe that with any sport. Come to me, and we’ll teach you to wrestle.”
When Killian first started Lebanon County Mat Club, it was in a family room, with a ‘couple of borrowed pieces of mat’ and in response to a pair of nephews who had shown an interest in the sport. When those boys enjoyed initial success, it didn’t take much time for the word on LCMC to spread.
“I wanted a couple local kids to have a place to go,” said Killian, 55 and a graduate of Lebanon High School. “Within a couple of months, we had two practices a night. When you have success, people want to know where you learned it.
“Right now, everyone’s gung-ho because states are in Hershey,” Killian continued. “In the off season, if you can get in one night a week, you’re not going to lose what you learned. Some people put their shoes in moth balls from February to November. We do send a lot of kids to every school in the county, and then some. Our goal is to send them back knowing something. We don’t promise you anything. We promise that you’re going to learn something about wrestling.”
Wrestling is not for everyone. It is one of the toughest scholastic sports there is. It requires hard work, training, conditioning, repetition, focus and commitment. It’s almost its own lifestyle.
“The time of the three-sport athlete is a thing of the past. Everything is becoming specialized,” said Killian, who has been ably assisted by the equally respected Dave Boger. “We want to give kids an avenue to do a little extra. There’s no one else in Lebanon County who is doing what we’re doing. We have goals here we try to reach. They’re simple and attainable. A lot of kids don’t make it, but it’s a goal to strive for. If you’re going for a state championship, you’re going to be disappointed. We don’t blow smoke.
“Physically, it’s right up there with swimming,” added Killian. “Swimming is tough. They work hard. It’s hard. To train for football it’s hard, but it’s different. We get football guys who can’t get through 15 seconds. But football and wrestling are probably the best marriage in sports, that I can think of.”
In Lebanon County, wrestling does not boast the history and tradition of some other sports. It’s a sport whose pinnacle for local competitors is getting to the state tournament, not winning there.
In the 50-plus years in which the locale has competed in wrestling, Lebanon County has produced one state champion.
“We haven’t been considered a wrestling area since the 1970s,” said Killian. “At districts, you’re seeing a lot of Lebanon County schools. At regionals, you’re seeing more. We’re so much better than we were. And it’s getting better all the time.
“It’s for the sport,” Killian added. “I’d hate to see it go away. The sport is becoming more popular. More families are getting into it.”
When it comes to exposure and media coverage, wrestling in Lebanon County has always been the poor step child to the wildly popular sport of basketball. At its core, wrestling is an individual pursuit that offers its viewers precious few team strategies.
“No. Not at all,” said Killian when asked if wrestling receives the local coverage that it deserves. “And that bothers me bad. I often wondered why. We do a lot of good things here. We don’t make any money on this. And profits we make goes to Relay for Life or St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital. But I feel good when I can do something like that.
“We try to keep it exciting, keep it fun and top it all off with a lot of hard work,” continued Killian. “We tell the kids, ‘if you don’t have time for homework, you don’t have time for practice’. I’d rather be a scholar-athlete than a dumb jock.”
Through the years, Lebanon County Mat Club has become known in regional wrestling circles for two mottos: ‘It’s all in the upbringing’ and ‘Suck it up’. They seem to sum up what the local club has come to stand for, perfectly.
“We do it for the love of the sport, so it can be passed on and kept going,” said Killian. “I’m more about teaching it to the masses. But it’s not a play date. I get it a lot: ‘Why are you still doing it? Your kids graduated.’ That was the dad in me. This is the coach in me. The kids who come through here are mostly junior high and elementary kids, but they’ll always be my kids.
“There’s a lot of good kids who have come through here,” concluded Killian. “I could drop names all over the place. But we tell them, ‘you’re not going to see it (improvement) over night.’ We don’t sprinkle magic dust on kids. You have to work hard and listen.”