Despite young lineup, Rochester High wrestling looks for playoff push

By: Timothy Pontzer | Rochester Post | Published February 6, 2018

 Rochester High senior Christian Fortress, left, grapples with an opponent from Lake Orion High  Feb. 2 at Rochester Adams.

Rochester High senior Christian Fortress, left, grapples with an opponent from Lake Orion High Feb. 2 at Rochester Adams.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes

ROCHESTER HILLS — When asked for his team’s record, Erik Vernon responded with a chuckle.

The longtime Rochester High football coach, Vernon is now in his first year at the helm of the wrestling program. He served as an assistant for a decade following his gridiron commitments in the fall and was asked to take on the lead role following the passing of Frank Lafferty.

“I couldn’t even tell what our record is right now; it’s kind of mixed in with the individual stuff,” Vernon said after a Jan. 31 practice. “Honestly, the record doesn’t matter, which is so much different than football. Everyone makes the playoffs, so the key is to make sure you match up with tough competition throughout the year.”

Vernon said he learned that philosophy from Lafferty whom he called a dear friend. Lafferty, started as the Falcons coach in 2003 and was inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame in 2016. In February of last year, Lafferty passed away after a bout with pancreatic cancer.

“(Lafferty) really built something special here, and I was honored to be asked to coach after he passed,” Vernon said. “He’s still a huge part of this program. All of his little sayings always come up, and he implemented everything we do today. The kids understand what he started and are striving to keep that going. He always tried to schedule the top teams around to prepare for the playoffs and promote tough, hard-nosed wrestling while still having a good time.”

Vernon praised his assistant coaches Cody DeVoe, a former All-State wrestler at Rochester, and Ken Troy, who is a parent of one of the current Rochester grapplers. Additionally, he cited seniors Ben Kable (140 pounds) and Christian Fortress (152) as two leaders on his roster.

“(Fortress) is a great leader, and he does all the little things that you love to see as a coach,” Vernon said. “He gives kids rides back home, and he’s never hurt, so he’s at practice getting everyone ready. He takes on some of the toughest wrestlers. (Kable) is always helping out his teammates in meets and at practice.”

Fortress said he is simply trying to emulate those who came before him.

“I like that I have an opportunity to help the younger kids and show them how to do things the right way,” Fortress said. “It’s nice to pay it forward after I had great seniors when I was a freshman and sophomore. We care a lot about each other. It’s very genuine, and we all want to help each other succeed.”

Fortress and Kable are half of the seniors in Vernon’s lineup, a roster that only boasts four seniors total.

“It’s interesting this year because the team’s biggest strength is the overall depth from top to bottom and our overall numbers,” Vernon explained. “We have over 40 kids this year, but with only four seniors. It’s a blessing and a curse because some of our juniors have had the opportunity to step up and show leadership skills as well. You want to have more seniors, but you see the guys stepping up and fighting through adversity.”

Vernon said that part of the higher participation this season has been a larger-than-usual influx of talent from the football field.

“Out of our 14 wrestlers in the lineup, 10 of them are football players,” Vernon said. “As the coach, that’s awesome to see. Over the 40 overall, about 30 are football players. I’m not sure why it’s more than normal, but I love it. I preach year-round participation because I believe it helps in so many ways. One-sport kids tend to get hurt a lot, and by playing more you learn more lessons. All the coaches here at Rochester regardless of sport are on the same page, and we all work with each other by sharing the same philosophy.”