The Greater Latrobe wrestling community is in search of healing.
The Greater Latrobe School Board feels that the district’s current Director of Transportation and Athletics — and a longtime wrestling coach — can provide that source of healing.
The board, during Tuesday’s regular meeting, approved Mark Mears — also the Director of Transportation and Athletics — as the district’s head wrestling coach at a salary of $8,145, effective Wednesday.
“It’s exciting to go back to where your career started,” Mears said. “I’ve coached here before for almost a decade in different capacities and I’m very familiar with the Latrobe wrestling program because both of my sons wrestled here.”
The program came under scrutiny in February when former Greater Latrobe junior high wrestling coaches Cary Lydic and Dave Galando were charged with endangering the welfare of children and failure to report.
Criminal complaints against the coaches alleged that multiple members of the junior high wrestling team, on multiple occasions, would “hold other members down and poke them with a stick.” The alleged incidents were captured on video footage and resulted in charges against four unnamed juveniles.
District officials canceled the remainder of the junior high wrestling program’s season in January after state police began its investigation into the alleged hazing. The Little Wildcats completed section wrestling matches, but two exhibition tournaments and an exhibition match were canceled.
The school board announced in March that it planned to open all four of the district’s wrestling coaching positions, including former head varsity coach Mike Ciotti and varsity assistant Chad Schmeling.
Two months later, Greater Latrobe decided on Mears — a district administrator and longtime wrestling coach — as the program’s new leader.
“I think the statement is made that you have an administrative coach in the wrestling room, and that everything will be fine,” Mears said. “I think it’s important for people to remember that this has not been going on and the things that happened were not part of the long-term culture. I think that’s being misportrayed.”
Board vice president Steve LoCascio said Tuesday that Mears was selected among a pool of four other applicants.
“There was a lot of discussion,” LoCascio said. “We know there’s a lot going on with that program right now and it needs to be addressed.
“We were looking for someone with experience, someone who is known in the wrestling circles, someone who is good with parents and knows the kids, and we felt, at this time, Mr. Mears was the best person.”
Greater Latrobe has traditionally boasted a storied wrestling program, led by Hall of Famers Tom Harbert and Marc Billett, among others in the past.
The Wildcats’ senior high team still enjoyed a strong 2019-20 season, capped by Vinny Kilkeary, a 108-pound freshman, who became the fourth state champion in Greater Latrobe history. Also, Gabe Willochell ended a stellar career with a third-place finish at 132 pounds, and Greater Latrobe, as a team, qualified for the WPIAL playoffs for the first time in four years.
“It’s an honor to be in this type of program, with two Hall of Fame coaches,” Mears said. “It’s very exciting because we have a lot of talent. I just think that with strong leadership, we can achieve extremely high standards.
“Wrestling is a sport that has always been at a high level here. The challenge I have is not only sustaining that level, but also restructuring the base that feeds that high level long-term.”
Mears, 53, wrestled at Mount Pleasant Area and captured a WPIAL championship in 1985 before moving on to compete at Division I Lock Haven University.
Mears served as the head varsity wrestling coach at Mount Pleasant Area for eight seasons, posting a career coaching record of 121-38. He’s the second-fastest coach to record 100 victories in the history of the WPIAL, leading the Vikings to the playoffs eight straight seasons, every year he served as head coach.
Mears won three WPIAL team wrestling championships at Mount Pleasant Area in 2003, ’05 and ’06 and was named a two-time WPIAL Coach of the Year in 2003 and ’06. He led the Vikings to top-four finishes in PIAA State Team competition three times, each year that Mount Pleasant Area won WPIAL championships.
Mears was a two-time coach at the Dapper Dan Wrestling Classic and led Mount Pleasant Area grapplers to 23 individual section championships, five individual regional titles and 11 WPIAL championships. Under Mears’ direction, the Vikings had 25 state qualifiers, 12 state medalists and one state champion, Donnie Ament in 2005.
Mears was an assistant at the varsity level and a junior high head coach at Greater Latrobe from 1991-98 and 98-2000, prior to landing the top job at Mount Pleasant Area. He carried a 24-1 record, as Greater Latrobe was ranked the top junior high team in 1999-2000 by the Pennsylvania Wrestling News.
Mears said that he plans to bring in Eric Newill, his former first assistant at Mount Pleasant Area, in addition to Mike Rinehart, who previously coached at Greensburg Salem. Mears also intends to retain Schmeling as one of his assistants and bring on several additional volunteer coaches, as the staff boasts a combined 50-plus years of experience.
“Chad has done a nice job with the junior high program and helping Mike Ciotti at the senior high,” Mears said. “Of course, he coached at the high school this year, but the junior high parents really respect Chad.”
Mears’ son, Brock, plans to wrestle in eighth grade next year. His older son, Tyler, captured the WPIAL Class AAA Individual Championship at 285 pounds, ended fourth in the state and wrestled collegiately at Colorado School of Mines. The younger Mears tore his labrum, returned home to St. Vincent College and graduated last week. Mears’ daughter, Hannah, also recently graduated from Penn State University.
“Our name has been attached to the Latrobe wrestling program for a long time,” Mears said.
Mears is the current Director of Transportation and Athletics at Greater Latrobe, but he doesn’t believe that adding the title of head wrestling coach will be too much for his schedule. He said that he could be retiring as the district’s athletic director within the next year.
“There’s a lot on my plate, but only a lot for this year,” Mears said. “I can coach as long as I feel I’m doing it right and I have the skill set to keep it as a top WPIAL program. I’ve learned that you take it one day at a time and do each job when you’re supposed to do it. I have a lot of support from the other head coaches and administrators. I think we’re all looking forward to it.”
School board president Dr. Michael Zorch thanked Mears for stepping into his new position, while carrying additional duties.
“I know he does a lot of work for our school district now and this is certainly going to add to his time and devotion,” Zorch said. “I hope we get a wrestling season this year. To see the impact he would have, I’m sure it would be extremely positive, help heal our program and make us proud of it again.”