Wrestling standouts from Lakehead University’s past came out in full force on Saturday to see a handful of their own honoured.
Over 100 alumni wrestlers helped fill the Hangar for the Thunder Bay school’s wall of fame ceremony. Justin Beau Parlant, a three-time national grappling champion, was placed on the wall in the athlete category while the 2001-02 Thunderwolves men’s squad entered as a team.
“It means a lot to these folks here,” LU athletic director Tom Warden said. “Their experience at Lakehead University, their time with their sport. And then our young athletes are up and around mingling. It’s such an important part of what we do. It’s nice way to start the season as well.”
Former basketball MVP Jylissa Williams, volleyball player Kelly Roslinsky, swimmer Andy Ritchie and builder Ron Lappage will also occupy space on the wall — LU’s version of a hall of fame that adds new inductees in every two years. They are held in conjunction with the university’s Alumni Weekend.
At the centre of the wrestling program and its resurgence is Francis Clayton. A former wrestler himself who is currently in his second tour of duty as head coach, Clayton has restored a strong network within his former charges.
“I think everyone on my team has been coached by someone who is here for the alumni function. Almost everyone,” Clayton said. “You keep your alumni involved and they’re involved in the sport and you get some leads and names. They have a good experience and they send their kids here.”
Warden had another chance to witness the deep roots Clayton has established.
“I’ve been to events with them the last two nights,” Warden said. “What’s important is they’re not talking about anything other than the camaraderie they have or had as athletes here. He’s done an exceptional job bringing that group together. It takes a lot of work and he’s done a really good job.”
Clayton looks back fondly on his gritty team 17 years ago. Oddly enough, Beau Parlant had graduated in the spring of 2001 so this team was missing veteran presence. Despite going under the radar, the Thunderwolves finished third at the OUAs and proceeded to turn head at nationals.
“The recognition is very good. It’s due,” Clayton said. “They were a strong team. The neat thing about it is it was almost a Northern Ontario team. A whole bunch of guys from Thunder Bay, a whole bunch of guys from Sault Ste. Marie. . . . It was kind of a neat group of guys who were all friends. It was good to work with them.
“We had lots of good people,” he added. “It was more of even attack than it was a one-star team.”
The Thunderwolves picked up four medals at the Canadian university (then CIS) championships held in Thunder Bay. Devin Kirk (82-kilograms) was the lone gold medallist while Brock Curtis (68-kg) and Steve Raine (76-kg) picked up silver medals. Brent Fryia (66-kg) earned bronze in his category. However, the haul wasn’t enough to unseat the Brock Badgers, who went on to win their fourth of 10-straight national men’s team title in a row. Brock survived the overall points derby, 54-53 over the hometown Wolves.
“There were a lot of circumstances that didn’t go our way, but they wrestled really well that day. I still remember it clearly,” Clayton said.
Clayton was named the 2002 national coach of the year while Curtis won the Fair Play award. Curtis, the son of longtime club wrestling coach Harry Curtis, went on to coach the Thunderwolves earlier this decade. In fact, a handful of members of the team are currently coaches or still involved in the sport. Trevor Manchester will lead his Algoma Thunderbirds into Thunder Bay for the Lakehead Invitational on Oct. 26 at the same hangar where he celebrated with his former teammates on Saturday.
LU’s newest stars will get their chance to shine on the mats at the Invitational. The 29-person team including decorated high school and junior Alex Richer, current LU male athlete of the year Marco Palermo and Jacob Luczak, who represented Canada at the 2018 world championships. Palermo and Madison Clayton represented their country at the Canada Cup of Wrestling over summer, both coming home with medals.
The program rebuild has gone according to plan, says Francis Clayton.
“We needed a lot of work. We were like the Toronto Blue Jays. It was like last year’s Toronto Blue Jays,” he said. “We had a lot of promise last year and we started rolling and now we’re getting to a spot. It takes a lot of time.”