In a week in which they’re supposed to be rivals, high school wrestling coaches Bill Erneste of Park Hill and Blue Springs’ Mike Hagerty instead shared a semirelaxing phone conversation.
By SAM McDOWELL
The Kansas City Star
They griped that the Olympics dropped wrestling from the schedule, laughed as they reminisced and even discussed the very reason they’re not supposed to like each other. Well, at least not for the next few days anyway.
The Missouri Wrestling Championships begin today at Mizzou Arena — a three-day event that will conclude with state championship matches on Saturday — and Park Hill and Blue Springs are considered the two favorites to contend for the Class 4 title. Hagerty’s Wildcats are the two-time defending champions; Erneste’s Trojans won the two years prior to that.
“We’re truly better friends off the mat than we are rivals,” Erneste said. “But as soon as the whistle blows ... ”
Their longtime friendship will trump all of the competition set to transpire over the next three days.
These two coaches first crossed paths in 1989. Back then, Hagerty was the head wrestling coach at Central Missouri, and he invited a hard-nosed wrestler to the Warrensburg campus for a recruiting visit.
A senior at Christian Brothers High School in Memphis, Tenn., Erneste arrived in a suit and tie.
“He’s probably the only high school wrestler I ever recruited who showed up in a suit,” Hagerty said. “I figured if he put on that big of a show, he would be worth the investment.
“You know what — I’ve never seen him in a suit since.”
Hagerty coached Erneste for only one season at Central Missouri before departing for a coaching gig at USA Wrestling, the national governing body for wrestling.
Their wrestling relationship, however, was far from over. Four years later, the head coaching job opened up at Blue Springs High School. Both men put in their applications.
Initially optimistic about his chances, Erneste’s outlook quickly soured.
“I asked them if they had anyone else going for it,” Erneste recalled. “They told me there was a guy named Hagerty and asked me if I knew anything about him. I said, ’Yeah, you oughta hire him. And by the way, do you have any custodial jobs open?’ ”
Hagerty won the job. He’s stayed for 20 years, building one of the state’s premier wrestling programs.
Hagerty hired Erneste as an assistant coach at Blue Springs, where Erneste enjoyed a five-year tenure before taking over the Park Hill program in 1998.
Since he headed north, Erneste has put together a successful run with the Trojans, winning five state titles in 15 seasons. He credits most of that success to Hagerty.
“I have the utmost respect for Mike — he was a great mentor,” Erneste said. “I give him all the credit for everything that’s happened to me in the sport of wrestling.
“But do I wanna beat him? Every time I step on the mat.”
Park Hill is widely viewed as the team to beat in the Class 4 tournament this weekend. Its top competition will likely come from a Blue Springs team that features four wrestlers who have combined to lose only one match all season.
Park Hill will take 11 wrestlers into the state tournament, while Blue Springs will take eight. With those numbers, it’s a near certainty the Trojans and Wildcats will match up in a few weight classes, pitting Hagerty and Erneste in opposite corners.
“For those six minutes, we hate each other, I guess,” Hagerty said. “In this sport, you know how much your kids toil in the room. You don’t want to see anybody take that away from them.”
No matter the result this weekend, though, the friendship will remain intact.
“At the end of the day, we’ll greet each other with a handshake with respect,” Erneste said. “And on the way home, we’ll try to figure out how to beat each other next year.”
To reach Sam McDowell, send email to email@example.com. Follow him at twitter.com/SamMcDowell11.