COVINGTON — Replacing a legend is never easy.
Working alongside that legend for more than half of his head coaching tenure, and having previously grown up in the program he was in charge of, that can take some of the edge off.
Eric Vanderhorst, who wrestled for Covington in the late 1980s and early 1990s and spent the last 19 seasons as the assistant to long-time head coach Tom Barbee, takes the reins of a Buccaneer wrestling program that has only been coached by two other men since the 1970s — a program that boasts a tradition that has only grown stronger over the years.
“I’m just excited about continuing on the tradition at Covington,” Vanderhorst said. “When I wrestled, the Southwest district was pretty behind in technique and strategy compared to other areas in the state. I went to college at Ohio State — didn’t wrestle there, but did their intramural programs and got to wrestle some former college wrestlers, and got to learn some things. A goal of mine was to help Covington and the Southwest raise themselves up a level.
“We were kind of first generation wrestlers in the Southwest — our school started wrestling a lot later than, say, the Northeast. When I was at state, I went up against third- or fourth-generation wrestlers, and they just had so much more knowledge at the time than we did. But we’ve kind of caught up to them now.”
And lot of that catching up was done under former coach Barbee.
Barbee coached at Covington beginning in the 1980-81 season, taking over for Jack Schwamberger. Schwamberger returned for the 1989-90 season and coached the team until Barbee returned in 1998-99, and between the two, Covington had 38 different wrestlers qualify for the state tournament — with Barbee coaching 30 of them, including all 11 state placers and both state champions, Logan Brown in 2006 and Jarred Ganger in 2014 and 2015. All told, Barbee was the head coach of the team for 28 years.
Oddly enough,Vanderhorst — who was a state qualifier in 1991 and 1992 — only wrestled for Barbee during his freshman season, the year Barbee’s first stint as head coach ended. In addition, he had three brothers that wrestled for the Buccs, with Craig being Barbee’s first state placer in 1983 and again in 1984, as well as Todd and Rob.
“There’s a number of great Covington wrestling families,” Vanderhorst said. “And we’ve put our share of time on the mats there.”
But when Barbee rejoined the team as head coach in the 1998-99 season, he asked for Vanderhorst’s help — the beginning of a 19-year partnership.
“Basically, when coach Barbee started his second stint coaching, he asked me to be an assistant coach,” Vanderhorst said. “I’d volunteered the year before with coach Schwamberger, and then coach Barbee asked if I’d be interested in being an official coach. I’d just started working as an engineer the year before so I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to do that, but I said yeah, I’d give it a try for the first year. And yeah, it’s worked out every year since then. Fortunately, my job has allowed me to do that.”
Which, given the tall task that asking anyone to replace Barbee would be, has made the transition much easier.
“It’s gone very, very well,” Vanderhorst said. “Coaching with Barbee all those years, after the first few years we began clicking on who did what. He’s been a great help with transition items and things that he took care of that I didn’t it’s been a very smooth transition.
“I’m honored to coach the team. I’ve been involved with the program for a long time at the youth and junior high and high school levels, so I know a lot of the kids. Some of the kids are new to wrestling. We’re not a very experienced team, we don’t have a lot of upperclassmen this year, but we’ve got a lot of great kids. They’re putting the work in and learning the sport, and I’m proud to be a part of it.”
Contact Josh Brown at (937) 552-2132, or follow @TroyDailySports on Twitter.