Cedar Cliff’s wrestling team is a family. A family steeped in tradition.

Bob Craig coached two teams — football and wrestling — at Cedar Cliff High School and amassed over 800 wins between both (282 in football and 513 in wrestling, according to bleachercoaches.com) in a 40-year span.

Craig, known as the “Father of wrestling” to those that walk the Colts’ hallways, died in 2004 at the age of 72. He coached and mentored current head coach Rob Rapsey and assistant coach Thad Rapsey, as well as freshman wrestling coach Rick Tamanosky. He helped shape the type of wrestlers, coaches, and, in some ways, the people they are today.

Craig left behind some big shoes to fill when he retired from coaching. Rick Peiffer was next in line and he coached the wrestlers for several years.

Rob Rapsey, the current head coach who is now in his 12th season, took over that philosophy and has never faltered in his journey to keep Cedar Cliff wrestling on the podiums. To date, Rapsey has a dual meet record of 218-54, and he’s not done yet.

When Rapsey took over the program, he had a clear vision of what he wanted to see come out of his program.

“I knew our history going back to my coach Bob Craig,” Rapsey said. “We’ve had a tremendous history going back to the start of the program and I wanted to uphold that tradition, first and foremost, and I also wanted to take it to another level.”

One way Rapsey and the team have taken it to another level is facing the best of the best in competition. Beast of the East, the Powerade Wrestling Tournament, the Reno Tournament of Champions and various dual meets have helped shape the Colts into the team they are today.

And it doesn’t hurt if they can learn from some of the better grapplers to come out of the West Shore. Rapsey and Thad, his younger brother and assistant coach, both wrestled at Cedar Cliff under Craig. Rob, a 1981 graduate, was a two-time district winner and a two-time state qualifier. Thad, a 1985 graduate, was a three-time district finalist (two-time district champion) and a three-time state medalist.

That also trickles down the line to both middle school and elementary school — a focus for Cedar Cliff wrestling as they keep a close eye on the talent making its way up. Tamanosky was mentored by Rob when he was in middle school and high school, and Rob was still in college at Bloomsburg University.

As a mentor, Tamanosky and Thad will be the first to tell you that Rob has a knack for it.

“Rob wanted to do the right things. Integrity and hard work, those sort of things,” Thad said. “He kind of mirrored those in Mr. Craig. He’s a very, very good motivator. The relationships he has with the wrestlers, I would say, allows him to get the most out of the kids. He runs a college practice and once we get in there, we don’t stop. We keep a pace going, and that’s something I think he does that not a lot of other coaches do.”

“The schedule he has (the kids) wrestle, the intensity and the focus of the practices is something that’s even beyond what we did,” Tamanosky said. “Being part of the program, it’s just awesome to see Rob and Thad’s commitment to the program, and as brothers, just commitment to each other.”

The family tradition runs deep through the mats of Cedar Cliff. Brothers Rob and Thad will always look back at the stands after a big match to find their dad, sister and brother cheering them on. Their mother, who was always in the stands cheering them on as well, died in 2004, and the Leigh Rapsey Scholarship was put in place in her honor.

Tamanosky said it best: “Once you step on the mat for us, you become part of the family.” The Cedar Cliff family is huge and isn’t going to stop growing as long as there are wrestlers to put on the mat.

Former “family” keeps coming back to visit Rob and the team to help out, talk and catch up.

“He’s developed positive relationships with these young men inside and outside the room,” Tamanosky said. “The wrestlers and the families know that he’s someone they can go to. Rob’s a quality person as well as a coach, and he cares about them.”

“If you talk to any kid, they’re going to go out of their way to tell you how great of a person he is and how much he’s helped them in their lives,” Thad said. “I’m not great with words right now to tell you how great of a person he is.”

Those family values also help the team get through difficult times as well. When Cedar Cliff student Medard Kowalski went missing two years ago, it was one of the toughest times Rob and his team had had to go through in his years of coaching.

“It was very, very hard — and it’s still hard,” Rob said. “He was a very vibrant person and we were all very tight. He was a kid that everybody knew and he always made you smile, and always made you laugh. To have a kid so full of life pass away was very difficult. It was very tough for the program off the mat.

“Winning matches and losing matches becomes irrelevant then. It was something very difficult to come through.”

Staying together as a team on and off the mat helped everyone move on together, and this same mentality will continue into states and into the next season. Right now, the wrestlers heading into states — J.J. Wilson (113 pounds), Josh McLaughlin (126), Emorson Wentz (182) and Francis Duggan (220) — are focused and ready to battle against the best of the best.

Duggan and Wilson, in particular, are favorites to walk out of Hershey with a medal.

And the best of the best is what they’ve been trained for.

Email Mallory at mmerda@cumberlink.com or follow her on Twitter @MalloryMerda

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Sports Reporter

Sports reporter at The Sentinel.

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