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In 1990, a science teacher from Ohio began a wrestling program at LaRue County High School.
Gary Canter, a former college wrestler, had a lot to overcome from the onset. Some community members associated wrestling with an incident that resulted in serious injury to a student nearly 20 years earlier. Others were convinced that wrestling included daredevil leaps from a top rope. And, few high school boys could be convinced to step onto the mat wearing a singlet.
But Canter persevered and after 23 years of his influence, LaRue County is known as much for its hard-nosed wrestlers as it is being the birthplace of a famous President. And year, after year, his grapplers proudly don those singlets.
On Jan. 30, nearly 1,000 people gathered at the LCHS gym to honor Canter at his last home match. The Hall of Famer is retiring both as coach and teacher after this season.
There were former state wrestling champions, parents of current, former and aspiring wrestlers, colleagues, family and countless friends in attendance.
His record at LCHS is unparalleled by any other coach. But it didn’t start out that way. The early years were grueling. From 1990 to 1997, his record was 32-62 for a 34 percent winning percentage.
In 1998, things started to come together and since then, his teams have not finished lower than 10th at the State Wrestling Championship. They’ve won three Class A (small school) championships, five State Duals – a prestigious tournament that features the top teams from each Region – and 12 regional team championships. Since 1998, his record has been 453-37 for a winning percentage of 94 percent. Overall, his record is 476-93.
The 2001 team ranks fifth all time nationally in takedowns and the 2006 team ranks seventh nationally in pins.
The 1999 team – the one that set the standard for those that followed - finished the season ranked 10th in the entire mid-eastern region of the United States.
Canter was named runner-up National Coach of the Year in 2000 and to the Fifth Region Hall of Fame. He is ranked in the top-100 coaches nationally in number of wins.
His eight state medalists were honored at the ceremony along with the coach: Jason Detre, Jim Shaw, Todd Allen, Scott Cooper, Ozzy Parker, Darwin Perez, Drew Newberry and Bernard Ray.
Cooper was named Most Outstanding Wrestler in 2003 at the state tournament; and Canter’s son, Caleb, received the Kentucky High School Sports Athletic Association Sportsmanship Award at last year’s state tournament.
Canter’s 1999 team had a couple of surprises of their own. They presented their coach with a Granby trophy engraved with his stats – identical to the one Canter provides to his state champions – and his wife, D.J., with a bouquet and gift certificate to the Center of the Arts.
Shaw, who was part of that team, said they “all felt like one big family.”
“Certain people you come across affect your entire life,” Shaw said. “Not only the team, but Gary and D.J. touched my life.”
Wrestling taught him the “ability to set a goal and reach it – and to know you had to work to get it,” said Shaw. “It gave me a skill set that’s useful in life.”
He and his best friends from that year – Detre, Paul Cooper and Jack LaRue – have remained in or returned to LaRue County in their careers. Each have continued Canter’s legacy in some manner, either as coaches or referees. Shaw is president of the wrestling referees association.
If the Canters had not moved to LaRue County, “several young men would have missed out on a good mentor and role model.”
“I can’t see the team being what it is without him,” Shaw said.
Shaw said his mother did not want him to go out for the team – but he had made a deal with Detre.
“If I came out for wrestling, he would go out for baseball.”
Shaw said he got off to a slow start in wrestling but he improved under Canter’s coaching and teaching style. He was “ready to quit after the first year” (after a 15-14 record), but former assistant coach Eddie Paden encouraged him to stick it out. Then, his younger brother Chris started wrestling and he felt obligated to stay.
Shaw went on to a 42-0 senior season, capped by a state championship. Detre, a two-time state wrestling champion and All-American, “blew the tryouts and didn’t make the baseball team.”
Canter’s current assistant coach, former wrestler Elijah Zwiep, said it was “an honor to come back to LaRue County and be able to coach alongside Canter.”
“I think the thing I have admired about him the most is his continued vision of improvement to perfection (or at least as close to perfection as you can get) and his ability to lead young men to that vision. He has always stressed to his wrestlers to never rest on their laurels or past accomplishments. That no matter how good they are as an individual or we are as a team that improvements can always be made and it’s those improvements that allow you to maintain an edge on your opponents.”
Zwiep said Canter “has a way of getting the best out of you. I think the reason for this is his focus is always on his wrestlers. Canter has never wanted the spotlight on himself, he always wants his team or his wrestlers to be recognized for their accomplishments. He has always demanded discipline and respect, while maintaining a very approachable personality. He’s like a second father, sometimes even more than that to all his wrestlers.”
Canter said wrestling has been “a family event for us from the beginning.”
His children Hannah, a former statistician, and Caleb, in his last year as a Mat Hawk, were “weaned in a gym and still love the sport today.”
“We have one of the largest extended families I know of because of wrestling. Some of mine and my family’s best friends are the boys and parents of the boys that used to wrestle for me. And truly, ‘Once a Hawk Wrestler Always a Hawk Wrestler,” was the feeling that I heard and felt (after the ceremony). I will remember this night for the rest of my life.
Canter said he experienced a “rollercoaster of emotions” from sad, seeing Caleb in his final home match, to joy, seeing faces of former wrestlers and parents.”
“I was truly honored by the number of people and especially former wrestlers and statisticians that made it a point to come and recognize me at my last home match. The most memorable moment may have been breaking the huddle one last time after the picture with all of the former wrestlers.”
Canter said he has “nothing but respect to all the boys who have survived being a part of the program.”
“Only they know how physically and mentally demanding the sport of wrestling is. I think Dan Gable (Gold Medal Olympian and former Iowa University Coach) said it best: ‘Once you have wrestled everything else in life is easy.’”
Superintendent Sam Sanders has known the Canters since their arrival in LaRue County. He and Gary coached football together in the late 1980s.
“I think one of the reasons Gary has been so successful as a wrestling coach is because he is so passionate about wrestling,” said Sanders. “His wrestlers put in the work. Go over and watch a practice and you will realize his teams out work the competition. Of course the other aspect that helps is he knows the fundamental of wrestling and how to coach the wrestlers to improve their skills. Canter and (assistant coach Eddie) Paden made an excellent team. Lastly, and maybe the most important point, the wrestlers knew he cared about them. They were family and they would give him and the program 110 percent. Success breeds success, and Coach Canter and the wrestling program became a permanent fixture in top wrestling programs in Kentucky.”
Sanders added, “It has been amazing watching a program with LaRue County kids compete at this high of a level. I’d like to thank Coach Canter for building a program that everyone can be proud of here in LaRue County.”
Canter said he would miss coaching and the interaction “with such compassionate people. But I am sure I will find a way to stay connected to the sport in other ways.”
He’s looking forward to spending some time in the outdoors after retirement.
“I have many trails to hike and many mountains to crest. It is just time to open the next chapter of life and see what it has in store for me.”
“This has been an unbelievable journey,” he added, “and I have truly been blessed to have this opportunity.”