- Associated Press - Sunday, February 1, 2015

JACKSONVILLE, N.C. (AP) - When Dave Pelsang received the email from USA Wrestling informing him he’d been selected as one of the officials for an international tournament in Cuba, Northside’s first-year coach wasn’t sure what to think.

Long beyond surprised, the 48-year-old Pelsang was flabbergasted.

Could this really be true? And if so, what had he done to deserve it? Pelsang did the math. Of the estimated 100 U.S. international officials, he figured he “might be” in the top 89.

“I’m still an entry-level official,” Pelsang said while his wrestlers went through drills on mats set up in Northside’s cafeteria. “I’m in shock because I know this is a pretty big event. It’s in Cuba. We don’t go there all the time.”

Even one of his mentors, Ray Bruno, a long-time international official at the highest level and former White Oak High School coach, wondered about the call to Cuba, if half jokingly.

“He said, ‘I’ve never done this tournament. How’d you do it? They must like you,’” Pelsang said. “I’ve been blessed.”

After checking to make sure the assignment was legitimate, Pelsang welcomed the opportunity to officiate in the 2015 Granma y Cerro Pelado in Havana, Cuba. There was, however, just one problem.

The tournament, which is scheduled for Feb. 11-15, meant he wouldn’t be on the corner of the mat in his accustomed seat cheering and coaching the Monarchs during the NCHSAA 2-A East Regional individual tournament at Croatan High School on Feb. 13-14.

The top four wrestlers from each of the 14 weight classes advance to the state championships Feb. 19-21 at the Greensboro Coliseum.

After recovering from the initial shock of the “out of the blue” email, Pelsang’s thoughts were “great, but I can’t go.” That, he knew, meant he’d never get another chance given both that decision and his age. Then he decided to talk it over with his wrestlers and their parents along with Northside principal Maria Johnson and athletic director Angela Buchanan. He also called home to mom while speaking to just about everyone else he was close to in the sport.

Initially, mom told her son he’d be leaving his wrestlers “in a lurch,” but after praying on it she thought better of her initial reaction and told him to start packing. Most of the parents, Pelsang said, agreed he should go, although a few worried what it would mean for the wrestlers at regionals.

“I talked to everyone I knew. I talked to the Athens Drive coach (after a tournament). He said, ‘Coach, you’ve got to go. This is something that will bring notoriety to your program. It’ll let your kids know how involved you are in the sport,’” Pelsang said. “And, let’s be honest, does it tickle your ego? Sure.”

Ultimately, Pelsang decided to make the trip, but not before a final team meeting in which he said he had all his wrestlers vote. The result, he added, was unanimous. Go, coach, go.

“I’m in awe,” he said as he contemplated taking part in a tournament that will feature male and female wrestlers from all over the world in both Greco-Roman and freestyle. “I’m like a kid going to his first sporting event. This is a big honor for me and a big deal.

“But it’s humbling and scary because as a dad and a grandpa my concern is to take care of the kids. If I have any reservations at the last minute, I’m not going to step on the plane.”

That, however, isn’t likely, given Pelsang said he’s made sure he’s put together a strong support staff to make sure everything runs well while he’s gone. His son, Dave Jr., who wrestled at Gardner-Webb and is a nurse in the emergency room Onslow Memorial Hospital, will move up from assistant coach to acting head coach. Pelsang also has asked Mark Marva, a well-known figure in area wrestling, to serve as a “mentor” to give “overall guidance” to his son as well as his assistant coaches.

“They all agreed to pool their resources,” the elder Pelsang said. “I know this, we’re covered.”

Pelsang said he’s scheduled to leave Feb. 8 - his birthday - on a chartered airplane with the USA team and likely return Feb. 15, which means he will be back in time to help the Monarchs who made the state championships with their final preparations for Greensboro.

“I don’t know how the Internet will be in Cuba. The last time it was pretty tight,” Pelsang said. “So I may not know until get back, How’d we do (in the regionals)?”

Pelsang has been an official since 2004 with USA Wrestling, which is the national governing body for amateur wrestling in America and consists of 135,000 members. He’s been an international official for nearly four years and is a Level III official. Above him are Level I and II along with the top ranking of “superior,” or Olympic, officials. Along with that, he is the director of North Carolina director of officials for USA Wrestling and took 20 of his officials to the Southwest Regional at the Georgia World Congress Center in 2013.

At that event, Pelsang was named the USA Wrestling’s Southeast “kids and cadets person of the year.”

All that, he said, apparently helped him earn the trip to Cuba, as did having officiating one international tournament at the New York Athletic Club in November. That, he said, “was interesting. I got yelled at in 13 different languages.”

Pelsang said a more serious Bruno told him he had “built up” his resume, which helped him land the trip to Cuba. That was echoed, Pelsang said, by Sam Julian, who voted for his selection as a member of USA Wrestling’s freestyle sports committee.

“He (Julian) said, ‘You did a good job in New York. You didn’t offend anybody or step on toes,’ which is new for me,” Pelsang said. “He said we felt you earned it and it was your time.”

Pelsang isn’t sure how many matches he will get to officiate in Cuba, although he’s almost certain he won’t be assigned the chair - the final arbitrator over any disputes in the three-person officiating crew that will include the judge, who sits opposite the chair, and the “whistle,” or the referee who makes all the initial calls on the mat.

In New York, Pelsang estimated he officiated about 25 Greco-Roman and 25 freestyle matches.

“I’m hoping I get to at least whistle and judge one or two in each style,” he said. “If you do well, you get to keep officiating. If you make a mistake, they sit you down and you get to watch.”

Pelsang, who plans to wear his Northside High School wrestling T-shirt under his officials’ uniform, said he knows he’ll be anxious when he hits the mat, saying he was in “awe” at getting a chance to “represent the United States of America, a country I was blessed to be able to serve as a Marine.”

His goal as an official, he said, is one drilled into him by his more senior mentors over the years. He wants to walk off the mat without anyone remembering him. The reason?

“Because,” he said, “you weren’t part of it. You let it happen.”

And then, he said, it’ll be back to Jacksonville and the NCHSAA championships.

“I do have mixed emotions, leaving the kids entrusted to my care,” he said. “I pray everything goes well, that they’re safe, first and foremost, and that they’re successful and I can come back and enjoy a great state tournament and cheer those guys on.”

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Information from: The Daily News, https://www.jdnews.com


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