THE EARLY YEARS: 1938-1954
It is a little hard to find words to describe the influence that Mepham High School and Frank "Sprig" Gardner had on wrestling, but perhaps the word "incredible" is as good as can be found. Gardner came to Mepham in the Fall of 1936 when the school was using an old elementary school in Bellmore while its permanent facility was being built. Shortly after arriving, Gardner, who had never wrestled before, and coached briefly at East Hampton High School, wrote to District Principal Sanford Calhoun about the possibility of starting the sport, even though, in his letter, he did not think the boys would do well initially. Although limited to 9th and 1Oth graders, for there were no upperclassmen in the new school district, Gardner's boys, competing as a J-V, knocked off several varsity schools and by the end of the season took a 3rd in the South Shore Tournament, crowning two 9th graders as South Shore Champions.
The following year, Long Island heard about Mepham wrestling. Even without seniors, the Pirates won everything in sight, with only a tie against Amityville spoiling an otherwise perfect season. At the end of the season, Gardiner and his Pirates dethroned Amityville as the sectional champion in the first tournament to be held at Mepham High School, Mepham having taken over the tournament from Great Neck.
In the next 16 years, Mepham lost only once, when Baldwin handed them their first defeat on January 30, 1946. By that time, they had not lost in any one of their 100 contests, which included 2 ties. This streak included 82 dual meets and 18 tournaments. Following that defeat, Mepham turned around and launched an even more amazing streak, winning 130 consecutive meets and tournaments. This included 112 meets and 18 tournaments that came to an end on January 14, 1955, when Amityville defeated Mepham 17-16. But it was not until the end of the 1955 season that Mepham finally lost a tournament, when Amityville edged the Pirates for the sectional crown. During the course of this period, the Pirates went everywhere to wrestle. Often their schedule included as many schools outside the state as on Long Island. Schools were met from as far south as Virginia (Granby) and as far west as Ohio, as well as New England. Often their opponents were All-Star teams or state teams, but the results were always the same, sometimes by embarassing scores. No school ever escaped Mepham's grip.
Up to this point Mepham had been in 37 tournaments, tying one and winning the other 36. They were South Shore champions for 18 consecutive years, and Section 8 champions for 17 consecutive years. In 1956, the Pirates suffered the seemingly horrendous total of 3 losses, and finished second in both the South Shore and sectional tournament.
Gardner finished out his coaching career with two more perfect seasons, in 1957 and 1958. When he retired after 21 seasons, he had compiled a record of 254 wins, 5 losses, and one tie, had won 41 tournaments, finished second twice and tied for first once. Gardner's contribution to wrestling was not just in compiling these incredible records, but he helped revolutionize the sport in his coaching techniques, as he was an authority on rules, and he set up the first weight class divisions to be more reflective of the weights of youngsters. In addition he served on the National Rules Committee, sponsored the first collegiate wrestling match ever held on Long Island, between Rutgers and St. Lawrence in 1939 at Mepham High School, and gave meaning to a sport that, up to that time, was an adjunct of basketball contests and had little identity of its own. In addition, he launched the coaching careers of many present-day coaches that has helped increase the sport to a point where today more than 100 schools in Nassau and Suffolk Counties, and more than 500 in New York State compete in wrestling. No one in New York State has had more influence in shaping wrestling than "Sprig" Gardner. His last year, in many ways, was his most awesome. In 1958 Mepham won all 20 meets (a record), won 9 of 12 weight classes in both the South Shore Division I tournament and the first County Tournament. Mepham's showing in the 1958 County Tournament was hard to believe, when 17 wrestlers placed in the top 4 positions, including 9 who took first place. Mepham scored 173 points, or more than the next 9 schools combined, and 134 more than the runner-up, Valley Stream Central. It is likely that no one will ever come remotely close to his accomplishments and his influence on the sport.
YEARS OF GROWTH AND EXPANSION: 1955-1967
Although Mepham continued to dominate the sport after Gardner's retirement, one feature that also was evident was the rapid growth of wrestling. As late as 1954 the number of schools having wrestling teams was almost the same as a decade earlier. The growth of the county and the tremendous impetus Mepham had given the sport resulted in a phenomenal increase in the number of schools participating, as can be evidenced by looking at the summary table of school participation. As a result, tournaments underwent quite a change. In 1955, the North Shore conducted its first tournament, and the sectional tournament at Mepham also changed. Heretofore the other tournaments did not serve as qualifying tournaments for the sectional championships, but with so many schools competing, the North Shore, the two South Shore, and the Suffolk County tournaments served to qualify boys to participate in the sectional tournament. In 1958 The Suffolk County Tournament replaced the Mepham invitational as the sectional tournament. Regular league dual meet competition was inaugurated in 1958. The North Shore continued to hold its tournaments to qualify wrestlers for the County championships. The number of leagues grew rapidly and by the early 1960's there were more North Shore schools in wrestling than South Shore. By the mid-60's there were 8 leagues to accomodate the more than 50 schools with wrestling teams. Virtually every school in Nassau County competed in the sport.
Mepham's domination continued in the sport during this period, although not as overwhelmingly as it had earlier. The Pirates won the County championship 6 of the first 8 years, missing out in 1960 and 1961 when Valley Stream Central was the winner. Under Ken Hunte's guidance Mepham won 5 straight championships between 1962 and 1966, although Mepham had to be content with smaller dual meet streaks of 50 and 44. Clarke High became almost a permanent home for the County championship, which could no longer be held in the now too-small Mepham gym. After the County tournament was held at a different high school for a few years, Clarke hosted the tournament annually beginning in 1963. By the end of this period, all but four high schools in Nassau County had wrestling teams, and the sport had become an acknowledged major part of inter-scholastic competition, as many schools now began to seriously challenge Mepham for supremacy.
Warm thanks and best wishes to Mike Dubin whose wonderful work "History of High School Wrestling in Nassau County" is the source for all of the above. Exerpted from Long Island Wrestling 2000, published by Friends of Long Island Wrestling
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