(Photo: Frank Becerra Jr./The Journal News)
Ryan Kearns was getting ready to walk out the door for his annual trip to the New York State wrestling championships when his 7-year-old son Liam stopped him.
During the season, Liam had asked his father if he could start doing taekwondo. As the head coach of the East Ramapo wrestling program, Kearns regrettably didn’t have the time to take him. But he and his wife Jess promised they would sign him up after the season, and Liam was getting anxious.
“That was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Kearns said. “He asked if wrestling was over after states because he wanted to become a ninja. That killed me.”
While in Albany, Kearns consulted with some of his coaching friends. And when he returned, he talked it over with his family and former coach at Cornwall High School, National Wrestling Hall of Famer Don Blaine.
Over the course of those conversations and his own self-reflection, Kearns’ next move became clear. As much as it pained him to leave a team that he had guided out of the gutter and back into contention, it was time to step away.
“Wrestling will be there in 15 years, but my 7- and 3-year-old won’t be,” said Kearns, who is 36 and coached the Titans for the past 10 seasons. “That’s something you can’t get back.”
Kearns is comfortable with his decision because he’s confident that the right successor is in place. Assistant coach Rob Preiss has spent the past three seasons in the East Ramapo corner with Kearns and will assume the head chair at the age of 27.
“We went to the same high school (Cornwall) and wrestled for the same coach (Blaine),” Kearns said. “We had similar upbringings and have similar mentalities on how to do this stuff. I don’t think I’d be able to walk away if there was no one to take over the program. He’s excited and he’s young, so he has the time to put in the extra effort that I’ve been scaling back on.”
Preiss said that he “hopes to build on what coach Kearns has worked hard to start,” and offered praise for how far the program has come.
“Coach Kearns has taken the program from having about eight kids on the team to having a full modified, JV and varsity program that has competed at high levels,” Preiss said. “More importantly, he has changed the lives of many athletes and helped them become young men. Looking at the number of alumni that stay involved in the program speaks volumes to the impact he has made.”
(Photo: Tania Savayan/The Journal News)
When Kearns took over in 2007, there were fears that the program might be dropped altogether in the troubled district. The Titans’ numbers were dwindling and they would commonly get shutout by Rockland County powers like Suffern and North Rockland.
They’ve had a resurgence in the last few years, which culminated with a fifth place finish in Section 1 and a run to the state finals from 2016 Rockland wrestler of the year Trey Wardlaw.
“No coach has ever paid their dues like coach Kearns,” Tappan Zee coach Peter Dene said. “Wrestling East Ramapo used to be a day off, (but) coach Kearns took that program from nothing to a perennial winner.”
The turnaround has been stark and Kearns’ steady influence cannot be overlooked. He said he hopes to see East Ramapo’s rise continue — “I’m still teaching in the middle school, so I’ll still be recruiting,” he added — while deflecting the credit back to his wrestlers.
“It’s never about me,” Kearns said. “It’s about them, and I thank them year after year for putting in the effort. I’ve told them a million times, ‘It doesn’t matter who’s leading you. It’s about the right group of kids coming through.’ ”
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