Living the dream: Joe Rujawitz takes over coaching reins at Belleville West

While going through some old pieces of paper from elementary school the other day, Belleville native Joe Rujawitz found one entitled “What I want to be when I grow up.”

Then 11 years old, Rujawitz didn’t have to think twice about the annswer.

“I said that someday I wanted to be the head wrestling coach at Belleville West High School. When I was growing up high school athletes almost were at a celebrity status for me,” Rujawitz said this week. “To think, now after all these years, that I am the head coach, it really is a dream come true.”

A former state tournament placewinner during his wrestling career at West and an assistant with the Maroons for the last eight years, Rujawitz takes over the coaching chores from Al Sears, who resigned after 14 years following the 2014-15 season. Sears, who coached several state tournament placewinners — including four-time medal winner Demechico Spraggins — left the Maroons program in top shape. Armed now with a junior high program along with also drawing some of the top wrestlers from club teams such as the Belleville Little Devils and King Select, West has as much talent and perhaps more depth — then many of the other programs in Southern Illinois.

“Coach (Al) Sears really taught me alot and I wouldn’t be here today without his help. My first couple of years he was in my ear telling me that I would be in charge of this program one day. That day is here,” Rujawitz said. “We have a strong foundation and now we just want to keep it rolling. In fact, that’s one of our sayings this year. ‘just keep it rolling.”

Graduation hit the Maroons at some key weight classes. Among those moving on were 285-pound placewinner in Ricky Nelson and others such as four-year letetrwinenr JD Bass. Among those returning are two-time CLAss 3A 145-pound medal winner Nick Foster and others such as Garrett Bass (126 pounds), Justin Koterhandt (132) and Dorion Hoskins (145).

But when the topic of the Belleville West Maroons in brought up this season, the name Nick Foster will be the one you hear the most. Sixth in the 145-pound weight class as a sophomore, Foster was third in the same weight a year ago. This season, he will be at 160 pounds early, but will probably drop to 152 for the postseason.

“We haven’t ruled out 145, but more the likely, he’ll be at 152,” Rujawitz said of Foster. “Nick is probably the best athlete I’ve coached and that’s saying alot when you think about guys like Spraggins and Ricky (Nelson),” Rujawitz said. “He loves the sport so much that he’s almost invented his own style.”

Also back is Bass, who barely missed qualifying for the state tournament ago at the Class 3A 106-pound weight class. Bigger, stronger and taller, Bass should be one of the elite 126-pound wrestlers in the St. Louis area.

Another area of the Maroons which has Rujawitz excited is with their depth. A former standout at SIU-Edwardsville, Rujawitz said there are 30 freshmen in the program and that his Maroons can go four or five deep in wrestlers at almost all 14 weight classes.

“I’m really excited about the freshmen class. We have 30 kids out and they are all athletic,” Rujawitz said. “Our depth is also a major bonus because in this sport things happen. Kids get hurt, they get sick, they have academis problems, lots of things.

“It also gives us some flexibility. I’m one who studies lineups of other teams and if I see we can have an advantage by moving kids around, I have the flexibility to where we can do it because of our depth.”

Two freshmen — Simon Elam (106 pounds) and Logan Johnson (113) — will lead off at the top of the lineup, while senior Mason Darnell (120) is also solid. Bass and Koterhandt (132) will also be two of the better wrestlers in their weight classes.

Super athletic Marvin Wallace (138) and Dorion Hoskins (145) will team with Foster (152) and juniors Tristen Caswell (160) and James Stammer (170) in the middle weights while Ryan Johnston (182), Kohl Hilpert (195), DeMarlo Nesbitt (220) And Isreal GrIffin (285) are the starters to open the season.

Dean Criddle: 618-239-2661, @CriddleDean