A little less than two months from now, when several hundred graduates of Robert E. Peary High School gather in Delaware for a reunion of the wrestling program, quite a few laughs, stories and adult beverages are to be expected.
But the highlight of the Aug. 18 event could be the weigh-in. With nearly ever former athlete at least 28 years removed from their scratch weight — the school was closed in 1984 — it is likely every former member of the program will tip the scale more than a few pounds overweight.
“There is no way any of the guys are within 40 or 60 pounds,” former coach Duane Black said with a laugh during a phone interview from his Las Vegas home last week. “It will be interesting for sure.”
Some even joked they may try to cut weight and get in shape.
“I was 132 pounds all throughout high school,” said Steve Cannon, a mid-1970s graduate who now works in construction for Ryan Homes and is the director of the Washington Metropolitan Wrestling Officials Association. Seven of his eight brothers also wrestled at Peary. “I’m at 180 now so I’ll definitely want to be at least 165 by the reunion. I got to get back on the diet and get moving.”
All kidding aside, the gathering will be the first formal event the once-dominant program has hosted since the 1980s. The school opened in Aspen Hill for the 1960-61 school year and closed following the 1983-84 academic year due to declining enrollment.
During the life of the school, the wrestling program established itself as one of the best in Montgomery County. In the mid-1970s, the team won 54 consecutive dual meet matches and finished second at the state tournament in 1973 and 1975 seasons.
The Huskies won three team county titles, crowned 28 individual county champions and had at least six state champions (Steve Werts 1971, Hal Saylor 1974, John Fitts 1975, Dan Reese 1980, Rob Ulisney 1981 and Mark Furda 1983), according to former teammate and 1976 graduate Rob Wolf. Black, described as an intense individual by most of his former student-athletes, was inducted into the Maryland Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1998.
“It was pretty serious stuff,” Wolf said. “Coach Black had teams in better shape than everybody else. We had a lot of boys club champions coming in to high school and we became a real close group.”
Fitts, a 1976 graduate who resides in Montgomery Village and works for the U.S. Postal Service, agreed. His son, Tony Howard, was a state champion at Col. Zadok Magruder.
“Coach Black had his moments and he was the most intense coach,” he said. “I don’t know how much all of us remember, but I guarantee you that we all remember getting in shape.”
Several of the alumni have stayed in the area and have had sons that have had great success on the mat. In March, Tuscarora’s Austin Wenzlaff, Poolesville’s Robert Winning, South Carroll’s Jake Pooton, Damascus’ Mikey Macklin and Chopticon’s James Cannon all placed at the state tournament.
“You know wrestling for Peary and being taught by coach Black has stuck with me to this day,” said Sherwood football coach Mike Bonavia, a 132-pound high school grappler. “His desire to set goals and how he went about his business has helped mold me into the coach I am today.”
The idea of a reunion had been discussed for a while, but it came to fruition in the spring through the efforts of Jeff Ulisney. He made a few calls and created a Facebook group in an attempt to find everybody. He asked Hal Saylor, who went on to wrestle at Iowa State, and his brother Joe, if they would like to host the event at their restaurant in Blades, Del.
“A few of us have stayed in touch through the years, but we’ve lost a few people recently … and have only seen each other at funerals,” said Ulisney, who graduated in 1980 and lives in Potomac. “We wanted to have a fun reunion. We’ve been trying to spread it through Facebook and emails and we’ve found about 230 people, but there are more out there.”
Added Saylor: “Wrestling, more than all the other sports, creates a tighter bond for some reason. I never remember any of us arguing. I don’t know if that was because Duane didn’t tolerate it or we were too tired from him whipping up on us, but in all seriousness, we got along fantastic. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life.”