By Lauren Mariacher
At first glance, it's a dungeon, a poorly-lit basement, a storage area for the school's old junk.
While the “Pit" at Iroquois High School is a place for rusted school desks and athletic equipment from as far back as 1968, it is also a place that has soaked up more than 40 years of wrestling tradition.
I can't even begin to count the hours I spent in that wrestling room underneath the gymnasium, while I waited after my basketball practices for my father, the coach then, and my three brothers to wrap up their practice.
It's not an exactly comfortable place for a young girl; it's dark and smells like sweat. But when you spend that much time down there you would begin to notice less the smell and more the spirit of such a place.
In the Pit there were no seats for spectators, no announcer tables or big scoreboards. There's not even any drywall. Just a bunch of foam mats stretched across a cold concrete floor between caged walls and support beams that hold up the part of the school that's visible to everyone else.
Aside from the occasional visit from a parent, no one but a wrestler's teammates and coaches watched him practice down there. Students engaged in other after-school activities couldn't peak in the doors or run through the room the way they often did during my basketball practices upstairs.
It is a dungeon, but it was their dungeon. It was a place to call their own for a group of often disregarded athletes during basketball and hockey season. It was common ground. It was battleground. It was home. It was.
This season the wrestling team has had to adapt to a new home after school administrators moved the wrestling room upstairs to a renovated space where the swimming pool used to be -- a decision said to be a mandatory one.
“The whole catalyst for moving it really comes down to the changing requirements for health and safety,” said Iroquois Superintendent Doug Scofield before the move last spring.
The room provides the wrestling program, which has been regarded as one of the most successful in New York State, with windows and better circulation, in exchange for a smaller practice area that is also used by gym classes and other athletic programs.
How much smaller? In the Pit, 36 wrestlers could practice at once, in 19 regulation size practice circles. Upstairs, there are six regulation size practice circles. You do the math. I’m sure the wrestlers have been shouting praises in between banging into each other during practice.
Fred Marcheson coached the team from 1973 to 1986 and then again from 1994-2002. Ask anyone who knows anything about Iroquois wrestling and they won’t hesitate to tell you Fred is the captain behind the school’s most historically successful athletic program. He is the Godfather of Iroquois wrestling.
“It still makes me sad to think of the loss of the Pit especially when such a poor alternative is the only option,” said Marcheson. “My favorite time as a coach was at practice in the pit. Everyone and everything was there. No distractions just a singular focus on the next competition. We took pride in the place others avoided and made it our own.”
Vinny Amoia (Canisius) and John Mariacher train in the Pit for the state championships in 1981. Vinny went on to play football for Arizona State and the NY Jets. (Photo courtesy of John Mariacher)
A picture of the BAGUBA kids club in the Iroquois wrestling room, or the "Pit" in 1997. About one third of the Pit is visible in this photo. Over the years motivational quotes and the names of the programs most successful wrestlers were painted on the walls and support poles. (Photo courtesy of Matt Mariacher)
If you want a take a look at what former Iroquois wrestlers think about the move, visit the Iroquois Wrestling group page on Facebook, where since last spring they have left dozens of comments expressing sadness over losing the Pit.
"I have a little boy coming in seven weeks," wrote Joe Glinski, 31, when news of the move started to spread. "Future BAGUBA (BAGUBA stands for brutally aggressive guy uninhibited by adversity — the Iroquois Wrestling motto). I was hoping to introduce him to the pit at some point. Little disappointed."
Chuck Weston, 24, has spent thousands of hours in the Pit since he was in fourth grade, first practicing, and then volunteering to help younger wrestlers. Weston said he couldn't believe it.
"Tears of conquest or failure have been shed in that room for decades," he wrote in his Facebook post. "Championship teams seemingly walked up out of that room every single year, and better even still was walking your opponent down the long stairs and hallway to that dark wrestling room for every home dual in nothing but silence. Talk to anyone in the section that has been around and they will tell you what is the best practice room, it would be our "Pit."
"The environment of motivation and no distractions is going to be lost moving out of there," wrote alumni Jordan McGuire, Class of 2002. "That place was made for wrestling!"
What has been lost in the move was not only space, but what filled the space. Words of encouragement, inspiration, and history were painted across the walls of the Pit. There were motivational quotes. There were names of class and sectional champions, and the most desired place on that wall for a high school wrestler holds the names of state champions — Ethan Bosch, Matt Mariacher, and Jimmy Kloc. It's a lonely space, but that's what made it special. It was a place to look at when you needed that push to get off the bottom. A place to catch your eye in between shooting double legs. It was a place to see and say to yourself, “One day my name will be there.” It was.
Athletic Director Duke Ziegler said today that new banners have been made to hang in the new room. They will display them tonight at Iroquois' annual Alumni Night when the Chiefs take on Lake Shore for the ECIC II division title. The new banners are a good first step to preserving tradition, but the program deserves a few giant leaps.
"[The Pit] was tradition to all alumni,” said Kloc, a two-time state champ who graduated in June. “The pit was their wrestling room for years and years. I felt like it was my second home and they completely switched it around on us."
Craig Moessinger defeats his opponent and Iroquois wins a home match. The exact date of the picture couldn't be determined, but it is believed to be during the '79-'80 season. (Photo courtesy of Daryle Gustavel)
Bosch, an alternate for the 2000 Olympic Greco-Roman wrestling team, wrote this: “You can take the wrestlers out of The Pit but you can never take The Pit out of the wrestlers!”
Weston is worried about the program's future.
"Now with the removal of our beloved wrestling room, where does it go from here?" he wrote. "I just hope the pride and history of a great program is not lost with the loss of the "pit".
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