By GERRY deSIMAS, JR.
Connecticut Sports Online
CANTON, March 18, 2010 -- It just seems like Canton High wrestling coach Bill Phelps has been around forever. But he hasn’t. For nearly 30 years, Phelps has been a fixture on the sidelines in Canton and in the valley. He has been there for a generation of athletes on and off the field.
Phelps has coached boys soccer, girls soccer, wrestling, girls lacrosse, boys golf and girls golf at Canton, Simsbury and Ethel Walker. Before he got to Canton, he spent a season coaching freshman football in upstate New York.
“I don’t understand how kids can be one-sport athletes,” he said recently. “I haven’t gotten there yet. I don’t have a favorite sport.” Phelps was a three-sport athlete at the Salisbury School, playing soccer, wrestling and lacrosse. He irritated his coaches at Itacha College by trying to play all three. Thanks to injuries, he settled on lacrosse but he did earn some varsity playing time on the soccer team and wrestling team.
Things didn’t change much once he became a physical education teacher in Canton. Three seasons. Three sports. Three coaching jobs. And he has been there for his athletes and their fellow students in times of need after the premature deaths of two players and two recent graduates.
Phelps has spent the most time (28 years) as the varsity wrestling coach in Canton. He has spent 22 years coaching the boys soccer team in Canton, winning Class S state titles in 1995 and 2003. He has been president of the Canton Youth Soccer Association for years. He started the Little Warriors wrestling program to introduce the sport to kids in the elementary and middle school.
He helped found and coach girls lacrosse at Simsbury. Before he took the boys job in Canton, Phelps coached girls soccer at Ethel Walker. In the last 10 years, he took over the boys golf team in Canton and helped form the award-winning girls golf program.
In February, Phelps was honored and recognized at several matches for his contributions in wrestling. At the recent Class S championships, he received a standing ovation from the crowd just before the 125-pound championship match pitting Canton’s Steven Carpenter against Nonnewaug’s Tyler Tilbe. His fellow coaches in the NCCC recognized him at the league tournament.
Phelps led Canton to four league championships in his tenure – the first in the program’s history.
“When he is competing against me and my team, he wants to win and uses any legal method. He knows that rulebook inside and out and he uses every advantage he can get,” Avon coach John McLaughlin said.
And he’s willing to help. One year at the NCCC Tournament, Avon has three wrestlers competing at once on multiple mats. And two have bloody noses. McLaughlin is dealing with one and turns over his shoulder and sees Phelps with his medical kit helping out the other Avon wrestler.
Another year at the Class S tournament, Avon is challenging for the championship and McLaughlin wants to recount the points that the Falcons have earned just to make sure. “Bill sat with me and went over every single match,” McLaughlin said. “He’s a competitive guy but in the end, he’s a honest and good guy.”
And it was hard. Avon frequently stood in Canton’s way. The Warriors finished second to Avon in the league tournament 10 times. In 1995, Canton finished second in the Class S tournament. It was their best finish ever. The team that finished first? Avon.
“He is a consummate professional,” said Nonnewaug coach David Green, who has led his team to a state title in 2004 and a second place finish in February. “He knows the rule book inside and out and he will call you on it which is good because it keeps wrestling honest.”
It’s not hard to find Phelps during the crowded weekend tournament. He has a suit on with his jacket and tie – all the time. His peer coaches might break out a jacket once a year for a state championship final. Phelps coached each match with his signature sour apple Charms lollipop.
Not only do they soothe his throat but the lollipop in his mouth forces him to take a second and take it out of his mouth before he might yell about an official’s call. Why the sour apple flavor? “The taste is far more sharper on my tongue,” he said. “It’s the one flavor that is just me.”
Against Derby, long-time coach Buster Jadach broke his long-standing tradition by coaching in the meet in a full suit. Each Derby athlete marched into the gym with a lollipop in their mouth. Against Suffield, each wrestler handed Phelps a lollipop before the match began.
One of the most moving tributes was in his final home match in February. Many former wrestlers attended and their parents, including the parents of Stephen McNeil, who died in February 1985. Stephen was a junior on the team when he died of a brain aneurysm after wrestling in a match against Valley Regional. After the match, he was rolling around on the mat with teammates and said he had a bad headache.
“Mr. and Mrs. McNeil were right there in the front row,” Phelps said. “That means 10 times more to me than state championships. Seeing all of the kids. …
“The most touching moments have been the letters and notes from parents and the kids,” Phelps said. “That is what means more to me. It’s not about wins and losses. It’s about the friendships made along the way.”
Phelps was just in his third year behind the bench when McNeil died. Fifteen years later in 2000, Trevor Hinman, a co-captain on the soccer team, died in a one-car accident in early September 2000, just days before the season was about to begin. A few months earlier in March 2000, former soccer player Tommy Ryan died unexpectedly at home.
“There have been some life-changing situations that we’ve had to deal with,” Phelps said. “I’ve become a stronger person and a better leader and more feelings to help these young kids.”
In 2006, Jordan Church was a 20-year-old graduate who died in an August motorcycle accident. He had played on Canton’s 2003 Class S championship boys soccer team.
Phelps was one of several speakers that addressed hundreds at a memorial service on the school’s soccer field on a warm August afternoon. When Phelps was 19, his best friend, Brian died of cancer.
“His father told me that I wouldn’t understand this now but good things would come out of this down the road,” Phelps said. “When you’ve gone through something like that, you know the anger and emotions that are going through them. You go through and build from that.”
It’s a lesson in life. It’s something that Phelps was glad to share in wrestling, too. “It’s not about wins and losses,” he said. “It’s about what you learn from the match. That’s a lesson that will teach them something way beyond the wrestling mat.”
With the approach of spring, Phelps is preparing for the Canton boys golf season, walking the course with the Warriors and providing whatever guidance and leadership he can. All four starters, including two All-State golfers, return from last year’s Canton team that finished sixth in the CIAC Division IV tournament – the best performance ever by a Warrior golf team.
Wrestling won’t be easy to leave, although he probably be able to live without the all-day tournaments on Saturdays. He is hoping that his long-time assistant (25 years) Ed deSimas can step into the position next year. Phelps has been gradually giving him more and more responsibility over the past few seasons.
“I’m going to miss the kids and camaraderie,” Phelps said. “The teams, their coaches. I appreciated all the kids on the mat. Not just our kids.
“I loved the game and the participants in this game.”