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    Successful coach reflects on Wantagh roots

    Tom Ryan, of Ohio State, looks for second straight NCAA wrestling title


    By Andrew Hackmack

    A high school wrestling career that essentially happened by accident for Tom Ryan has turned into a remarkably successful coaching career: He will be seeking his second straight national collegiate championship next weekend.

    Basketball was Ryan’s first love when he was a student at Wantagh Middle School in the 1980s, but he was cut from his seventh-grade team. So, at the urging of his brother, Frank, Ryan gave wrestling a try. He went on to wrestle for five seasons on the varsity squad, capturing three county championships and falling just short of a state title.

    “It was life-changing,” he said of joining the wrestling team, noting the inspirational coaches and great teammates he had during his six years representing Wantagh.

    He won the county championship at 119 pounds his sophomore year, and finished fourth in the state in his weight class. The next year, at 132 pounds, he was again the county champion, with a third-place state finish. A torn ligament in his ankle during his senior year (138 pounds), in which he was one of three Wantagh county champions, spoiled his quest for a state title, but it didn’t dissuade him from continuing with the sport. “It kept me hungry to pursue success at the next level,” he said.

    After graduating from Wantagh High in 1987, Ryan received a full scholarship to Syracuse University, where he wrestled for two years, in addition to rooming with his brother. He then transferred to the University of Iowa, and walked on to the team there, competing for three years.

    Immediately after he graduated, he got an assistant coaching job at Indiana University, and spent two years there before moving back to Long Island to take the head coach position at Hofstra University. “It was a blessing,” he said of coaching less than 10 miles from where he grew up. “It was an incredible opportunity.”

    He was only 24, and knew Hofstra was taking a chance on him. Ryan led to the team to an eighth-place East Coast Wrestling Association finish his first year, then seventh place

    before the program took off. Pride wrestling then had three years of second-place finishes and six years at the top of the conference. In 2006, after 11 years at Hofstra, Ryan took his current position at Ohio State. “I was extremely happy at Hofstra,” he said. “I loved Hofstra. But this was a chance to compete at another level.”

    The Buckeyes have improved steadily ever since, stepping up from ninth place in the Big Ten conference his first year, to winning the NCAA title last year, the first in the 95-year history of OSU’s wrestling program.

    March 17-19, the NCAA wrestling championships will take place at Madison Square Garden, and Ryan will be there with his team. Coming back to his home state is just part of the excitement as his wrestlers look to defend their title. “We’re in a position to win again,” he said. “Our objective is to win a championship.”

    Only nine other teams in the nation have won a Division 1 championship since 1928, with Oklahoma State and Iowa State having dominated the sport, and, more recently Penn State. Ryan said that cracking that elite list was tough, but was accomplished through good financial support for Ohio State’s program, and talented wrestlers. For example, he coaches Kyle Snyder, who, at 19, became the youngest world champion in USA Wrestling history and is a favorite to make the Olympic team.

    “We’re attracting many of the top student athletes in the United States,” Ryan said. “Motivated people want to be around motivated people.”

    In memory of his son

    One of the toughest challenges Ryan has faced has not been as a coach, but as a father. In 2004, when he was coaching at Hofstra, his 6-year-old son, Teague, died of sudden cardiac arrest.

    “I would say he’s the most influential figure in my life,” Ryan said of Teague. “He caused me to think long and hard about why I’m on Earth, how I got here and where I’m going.”

    Losing a son, he said, set him on a journey to discover his faith, and gave him perspective about his own religious beliefs, which were greatly strengthened. He also was grateful that Hofstra named its practice facility for his son, who would have turned 17 last month.

    Two years later, Ryan and his wife, Lynette, made the difficult decision to uproot their family so he could take the job at Ohio State. Their oldest son, Jordan, will graduate from OSU in May, and their other son, Jake, is a red-shirt freshman on the wrestling team.

    “It’s been surreal,” Ryan said of coaching his son, a starter at 157 pounds, and watching him develop the same passion for wrestling.

    His daughter, MacKenzie, is a freshman in high school. Ryan said he still has some family members on Long Island, but most have moved away, including his mother, who now lives in Pennsylvania.

    He said he is grateful not only to have found wrestling at an age when he could turn it into a career, but also for his overall upbringing. He credits a combination of amazing parents, great friends and being around other people who also had big dreams. “Wantagh provided me with a great framework of good people,” he said of the place he spent the first 18 years of his life. “Wantagh is an amazing place to grow up.”