RONAN — Dave Edington remembers well how Ronan High School got its start with organized wrestling.
It was 1968 and then-administrator Joe McDonald wanted a wrestling program for the school.
“(McDonald) found out somehow that I’d wrestled in college (University of Wyoming),” Edington said.
When McDonald asked him to coach, “I told him ‘no.’ I had come to Montana to get out of the wrestling scene.”
McDonald offered a solution. He would coach the team and Edington would just help out.
Edington agreed. They borrowed an old mat, signed up a few kids and set a practice schedule.
On the first night of practice, Edington asked McDonald what he would like him to do.
“’I’ve got a meeting. You get them started and I’ll be down later,’” the crafty administrator said.
By the third night, McDonald showed up as they were putting the mat away.
“I guess he saw something that I wasn’t willing to acknowledge,” Edington said.
That was 50 years ago. Ronan celebrated its wrestling heritage over the July 4 holiday with a three-day reunion loaded with reminiscing about the nine state championships (1973-74, 1976, 1978-82 and 1991), three second place finishes and nine third place trophies the program has accrued.
Eight of those titles were under Edington’s watch.
But those first years were a little sketchy.
The borrowed mat was hard as a rock, Edington and the bus driver were both volunteers, and the team’s uniforms were donated by a company that had accidentally doubled Hamilton’s order.
Still, they qualified two wrestlers for state. Since Edington had to pay his own way to the tournament, “it actually cost me money to coach that first year,” he laughed.
Edington points to two defining moments — the night a conference opponent laughed at the Chiefs in their Hamilton Bronc singlets and the moment he found the wrestling program he wanted to emulate (Seeley-Swan).
After that, success came quickly. Two years after the conference opponents laughed, the Chiefs walloped them in a dual.
It took three years to place in the top three at state and five years to win it.
But for all of that success, it is the relationships that Edington and all of his “kids” cherish.
Ronan wrestling has long been known for it’s family involvement. Several families have had more than one boy wrestle — and a lot of those are now into their second generation of Ronan wrestlers.
“He really took an interest in trying to help kids make it through school. If there was no Dave Edington, there wouldn’t be any of this,” said former wrestler and four-time state champ Jim Darlington (1973-76), a software consultant in Indiana.
Darlington’s brother Bill was Ronan’s first state champion, in 1971.
“Wrestling is kind of my family here. (Edington) is one of the guys I seek out every time I come home,” Darlington said.
Darlington downplays his four titles. “There are lots who have done that.”
But the sport opened doors for him.
“Wrestling gave me the opportunity to go to college. I don’t know if my parents could have afforded it,” Darlington said.
“If it wasn’t for (wrestling), I wouldn’t have gone for certain. It got me down there, got me an education,” agreed another former wrestler, two-time state champion Bill McCready.
Darlington and McCready were among many who got wrestling scholarships, Darlington at Oklahoma, McCready at BYU.
“He always had high standards. You never do anything second class. It was always done right,” McCready said of his coach.
“He knew how to get you in shape — burpees and sit-throughs. And if I had a penny for every push-up I did, I’d have retired a long time ago,” he said.
“I think during those years, Ronan was one of the premier wrestling programs in the state. There was a lot of pride in that, I think, taking on the big boys and winning. We believed in ourselves. It’s pretty incredible the level of competition out of the little town of Ronan,” Darlington said.
“I never felt there was a guy I wrestled who was better than me. If I didn’t win, it was my own fault.” McCready agreed.
McCready was the first Ronan wrestler to get international experience, as he was wrestled a member of the National Junior Russian team in a freestyle competition in Missoula. He lost, 7-4, but Ronan wound up hosting the Russian team for a dual.
“The entire community showed up. It was a big deal,” McCready said.
“The impact of having that team in — kids in Ronan saw the best in the world — in their gym,” Edington said.
After that, the floodgates opened for cultural exchanges. McCready was invited to Mongolia. Others went to Japan, Canada, Turkey, Yugoslavia, Germany, Iran, Poland, Puerto Rico, Finland and Sweden.
Edington retired as coach in 1989 when his wife became ill, but he has remained active in the sport through the MHSA.
“It was always a thrill having all those kids achieve,” he said.
His favorite memories are a toss-up between Bill Darlington winning the first state championship and the 1976 team that qualified all 12 members for state and placed nine in the championship matches.
But the 1988 team “will argue they were every bit as good,” he said.
Now, ask him who the best wrestler was and you won’t get an answer. He’ll just start listing the virtues of each young man until the listener gives up.
“People look at me and back away,” he grinned.