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Varsity - HighSchool Sports

Michael Radano: Papa earned respect and recognition

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

"If everyone would just put a fraction of what (Gary Papa) has put into this team. I don't see why you can't be No. 1 again next year." Randy Moore, Camden Catholic senior wrestler

To understand Gary Papa is to understand the Camden Catholic High School wrestling program.

Papa is the heart, the soul and the mind of Irish wrestling.

It's been that way since he took over as head coach in 1993. It's been that way every day a wrestler walked the "Green Mile" to the wrestling room that sits adjacent to the school's boiler room. It's been that way every time a green robe was adorned by a teenage wrestler. It's been that way through losses and many more wins. It's been that way through five state team titles and three individual ones with the Irish.

It also was that way in 1978, when Papa got his first head coaching role at Paul VI, only the robes were blue and the room was "The Pit" and not "The House of Pain."

There was one other difference.

In 1990, Papa stepped down at Paul VI.

That wasn't his decision, that was the administration's.

At that time, Papa wanted his sons Zack and Nick to wrestle for him, but the powers that be had instituted a policy that a head coach could not coach his own children.

So Papa left and started over just a couple of miles down Cuthbert Boulevard.

He rebuilt a stagnant program, and Sunday, he made it clear that this time, he was going to step down on his own terms.

Papa made a deal with the Camden Catholic hierarchy that was impossible to make just 15 years earlier in the same diocese. He wanted to leave the program in the hands of someone he trusted and someone he respected. He needed to do this after investing so much time in the Irish and the Camden Catholic administration agreed - with a condition.

"I didn't want to leave this program to just anyone and see it slowly decline," Papa said. "When Pete (DiPol) came to us two years ago, I told him I wouldn't make any promises.

"After one year, I saw him grow in the role, and this past summer, I went to our administration and told them that I wanted to step down but only if Pete was named the head coach. They watched Pete and got to know him this past winter and everyone agrees this is the best way to go."

It's also the classy thing to do.

Papa is not sick, he's not going away, he's not being forced out.

In fact, he's going to remain to help DiPol, who has a solid record after coaching stints at Edgewood and Schalick.

Papa earned this right.

It's not just the 440-95-2 record that permitted him to ease out on his own terms. It's not just the 15 combined state titles or the five state champions with legendary Paul VI graduates such as Tim Curry, Adam Derengowski, Doug Arena and Tom Walsh. It's not the three state Irish champions Mike Booth, Bobby Ray Stinson or Ed Giosa, either.

But it is.

Papa has been a father, a brother, a role model, a drill sergeant and a friend to countless wrestlers - both in and out of his program. He's done more than his share for fellow coaches and officials and he's bent over backward to make wrestling special in South Jersey.

That's why he was allowed to name his successor. That's why DiPol is excited - yes, excited - that Papa has committed to two more years as an assistant.

Papa has earned every accolade he's received and he was given one more by a standing ovation Sunday morning when he announced his decision.

In a move that shocked many, Papa made a gesture that should never go unnoticed.

In the end, he made a decision not based on him, but on a program that means so much to so many and for that, he deserves the recognition and respect from not just the wrestling community, but from South Jersey as a whole.

Reach Michael Radano at (856) 486-2424 or

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