Conley steps away, Pitts steps up at Canfield

By Brian Dzenis

Canfield High School wrestling has reached its highest highs in the past few years under head coach Dean Conley, but coming this winter, it’s someone else’s job to take the Cardinals even higher.

After back-to-back years of state runner-up finishes in team play and of having an individual state champion, Conley stepped down. The 18-year head coach makes way for Stephen Pitts. a former Cardinals wrestler and assistant coach with the team for the past six years.

“It may seem daunting, but it’s something that I think I’m ready for and it’s something we’ve talked about for the last two years,” Pitts said. “I’m excited about it and I’m ready to go.”

Conley — who remains a teacher at Canfield — said he had been thinking of leaving for the past few years. His daughter, Alex, is already competing in state and national golf tournaments at the age of 8 and he wants to spend more time with her as she goes through her athletic career.

“My wife said, ‘It’s such a fun and wild ride with wrestling. Why do you want to step away now?’ I said it was time to start a new fun and wild ride,” Conley said. “I want to have the same experiences with my daughter that I had with these student-athletes in the last 18 years at Canfield.

“I guess I’m starting a new journey in girls golf.”

The state of the team or any particular wrestler had no role to play in his departure, Conley said. The team is at a point where it’s always going to have state-ranked wrestlers and Pitts will retain the 10 remaining assistant coaches from the youth through high school ranks. The latter point made him more comfortable with leaving.

“I wanted the least amount of disruption with the program. I didn’t want to tell anyone it was my last year because then the season would have been about me,” Conley said. “I didn’t tell the coaches or parents because I had made the decision, but it wasn’t final until after the season.”

Conley can be awkward about discussing matters concerning himself. He was named the Division II Wrestling Coach of the Year this past season and admitted he felt uncomfortable about being honored in Columbus because it looked like he was getting too much credit.

Conley’s legacy at Canfield is the philosophy that anyone has an equal chance to contribute. It’s how he kept five former head coaches on staff and has one of the deepest rosters in the state. He wasn’t afraid to defer to others and Pitts is a good example of that.

Nearly every recent marquee name in Canfield wrestling is in some way connected to Pitts. He cornered for the program’s all-time winningest wrestler, Georgio Poullas. He did the same thing for Mason Giordano as he went from a first-time wrestler as a sophomore to a state finalist and Division I commit as a senior. Pitts coached returning state champion David Crawford in middle school.

He spoke to The Vindicator from Ada, where he’s travelling with Crawford, David Reinhart and Ethan Fletcher as they hit the offseason tournament circuit. The time he puts in with the wrestlers allows him to earn their trust and in turn help to deliver stellar performances.

“With me, it’s about building relationships,” Pitts said. “There’s a shared suffering a little bit. They put in the time, so I put the time with them. When it’s time for them to complain, I can say ‘I was there too, man.

“It gives me some backbone and they know I’m there with them. The guys trust me and treat me like family and it has been good.”

Conley hasn’t quite given up on wrestling just yet. He said he’ll help with fundraising and in smaller ways when he can. Conley’s two state runner-up teams lost to Saint Paris Graham both times. In March, Canfield had 83 points to SPG’s 253. The Falcons have won the last 17 team titles and Conley hopes Pitts can be the guy to snap that streak.

“I’m proud of what we’ve built. I think Steve and the rest of the guys will be successful,” Conley said. “First place in D-II seems so far away — like 100 years away — nothing would make me prouder than to see coach Pitts and the guys hoist that state championship trophy. That would make my career, my life, everything.”

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