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Leaving Gulf will be difficult for DeWalt

NEW PORT RICHEY - Travis DeWalt remembers when he got the phone call from a familiar voice. It was spring 2000, and he had just finished his first season as wrestling coach at Hinton Community School in Iowa. "(Gulf principal) Cheryl Renneckar called on the recommendation of Keith Newton, who was my wrestling coach at Gulf," said the 41-year-old. "She asked me if I would be interested in coming back to Gulf and coaching the wrestling team. She also told me they were in a hiring freeze for teaching jobs, so it was kind of an awkward proposition." After 12 years at the helm of the Gulf wrestling program, DeWalt has decided to step down. He said with his son and daughter being active in youth sports, DeWalt wanted to spend more time with his family.
A September event, however, changed DeWalt's life. His father-in-law, Joe Macaluso, passed away from cancer at 59. "I had been contemplating retirement since 2010," DeWalt said. "With the loss of my father-in-law, that made me do a lot of self-reflecting. The guy was perfectly healthy, and he was diagnosed, and then 42 days later, he was gone. All I could do was think, if that was me, would I be satisfied with the amount of time I spent with my kids and family. I could truly look in the mirror, and say, I'm married to the program more than I am to my kids. It's not a good balance." Though the family time is something he's looking forward to, leaving the high school that he loves is not going to be easy. "It's going to be hard," DeWalt said. "You walk in the front office of the school, there's my state champion picture from 22 years ago. There's a huge trophy case with all our district and conference champion trophies, and not to mention our state championship trophy. Then there are pictures of our state champions next to mine. It will be truly hard. I will never forget Gulf High School." In 1990, DeWalt became Gulf's first state champion wrestler, and in his heart, he was always a Buccaneer. DeWalt had no idea the shape of the program he was about to take over when he was named coach. From 1997 to 2000, the wrestling team failed to win a single dual meet. "It was truly ground zero," DeWalt said. "When I tried to fill out my schedule, I had trouble even getting us in any tournaments. The other coaches told me, 'We stopped inviting Gulf, because you were only bringing three or four kids.' I had to convince the other coaches that I had a full roster. We may not have been able to wrestle, but at least I had a full team." DeWalt's first year at Gulf may not have been successful, but it laid the groundwork for the future. His arrival brought enthusiasm and dozens of kids came out for the wrestling team. Put through a physical regimen that they weren't used to, most of the wrestlers from the previous regime quit. DeWalt was left with a group of young, but eager-to-learn athletes. With a freshmen-heavy roster, Gulf went 9-11 in 2000-01. The next season, Gulf made its move, going 27-4 to become the county's top program. For DeWalt, whipping the kids into shape may have been the first step, but not the only way toward success. "Bottom line, I had to teach these kids to wrestle," DeWalt said. "I had a lot of philosophical debates over the years with coaches on the importance of fundamentals and basics." DeWalt's methods worked during his 12-year career. The numbers speak for themselves: Eight conference and district titles and the school's first state championship in 2010. Individually, Gulf had 25 state medalists, including five state champions.

Correspondent Steve Campbell can be reached at SteveCampbell@ionmedia.com or follow him on Twitter @SCPascoTrib.

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