Photo by Bill Roseberry
Alton head coach Eric Roberson celebrates with senior Alejandro Lopez on Dec. 19 at the Mascoutah Tournament after Lopez won an individual title. On Jan. 23 Roberson celebrated the 300th win of his 20-year coaching career with the Redbirds.
There’s no doubt that 300 career wins is quite a milestone for a coach, but for Alton Redbird wrestling especially, it’s also the mark of a good program.
When AHS head coach Eric Roberson secured the 300th win of his career on Jan. 23 in Belleville, he reflected on his time at Alton, his time as a wrestler at Roxana and at SIUE. The 300 wins were special because they all came with the Redbirds, a program Roberson built from scratch in 1996. After securing win No. 300 with a 53-18 win over Jersey at Belleville East, Roberson was perched at 300-138 during his 20 years at Alton.
“I came in in ‘96 after being an assistant at Roxana and was just getting into teaching and in a way there is an advantage at starting a program,” Roberson said. “There’s no previous comparison; I didn’t have to change the culture. I could set things up the way I wanted to set things up and as long as we had the participation, which we did, and the support from the administration, which we certainly did, things were able to get going.”
Roberson still remembers that first win fondly and keeps a reminder handy.
“I still have the article up in my office from win No. 1,” Roberson said. “That was in December 1996 against East St. Louis Lincoln. I didn’t know if we’d get any wins that first year, but we got a couple. There were definitely some challenges just with the logistics of it.”
When it was released that Alton was looking to get its defunct program back off the ground, Roberson was not initially interested. The program had been scrapped in the early ’80s and had already been rejuvenated another time in the ’50s after a stint without the sport.
The more he mulled it over, though, the interest built.
“Somebody called me that Alton was starting wrestling back up and I wasn’t really that interested at first,” Roberson said. “But the more I thought about it and the more I visited the school, the more people I talked to, I just thought there was a lot of potential.”
After all, Roberson knows a thing or two about wrestling. He was a standout under Larry Milazzo at Roxana and then went on to compete under Larry Kristoff at SIUE.
Roberson finished fourth in Class AA at 138 pounds for the Shells in 1987.
He’s utilized all that wrestling knowledge he picked up over the years from some pretty fantastic wrestling minds.
“I was really fortunate to be involved in some great programs, some great people and some great coaches,” Roberson said “Larry Milazzo, Glenn Exton — he was my kids’ club coach, Joe Huff was my middle school coach, then of course at SIUE with Larry (Kristoff). We always had a tough room to train in, great workout partners in all the weight classes.
“It’s certainly allowed me to take what I learned from all of those experiences and apply it to what I’m trying to do here at Alton.”
Kristoff’s pack of Cougars can be found sprinkled all over the area as coaches. While Roberson reached 300 wins this year, fellow SIUE alum Tom Blaha (Collinsville) reached 200 and former Cougar Jon Wagner (Edwardsville) earned No. 400.
“Eric has shown some good longevity there and a lot of dedication to the program,” Wagner said after a dual with the Redbirds on Jan. 14. “He’s dedicated himself to Alton wrestling and they’ve been real competitive. Tom Blaha has done the same thing with Collinsville and all those guys are my friends. We all went to college together and everybody’s got their own team, working hard.”
Other coaches in the area called SIUE home too, including: Maurice Brown (Belleville East), Exton (O’Fallon), Rob Milazzo (Roxana) and Russ Witzig (Triad).
“All of us coming from the same program have had very positive influences throughout our careers and it’s really neat to see all of us doing well,” Roberson said. “Now we’re all competing against each other, but we’re all good friends and very familiar with each other. It’s been a great experience throughout.
“It’s a little bit of a fraternity, I think. We all wrestled together at some point. We all landed at different schools, but a lot of us landed in the Southwestern Conference.”
As for Roberson’s program at AHS, he’s produced five medalists and seven medals during his tenure. Ben Laux was the first in ‘02-03, finishing sixth at 189. Wade Lowe and Taylor McGiffen each won two medals and Phyllip and Nicholas DeLoach became the first double winners in the same season at Alton last year when they both finished fourth.
Lowe went on to become a NAIA national champion at McKendree University and it’s those stories that highlight Roberson’s career, not his 300 wins. Lowe is now an assistant on Roberson’s staff.
“I think wrestling filled a niche for some kids (at Alton),” Roberson said. “To see individuals go on to college and be successful, getting scholarships — I think wrestling at Alton has provided some great opportunities for these kids to go on and pursue an education. Wrestling has been a vehicle for them to do that. It’s great seeing the kids having success while they’re here, but it’s even better to see them move on to college and see them have some success at the higher level.”
As for win No. 300, it only tells Roberson one thing.
“For me personally, this just means I’ve been coaching too long,” he said, chuckling.
For Alton’s sake, let’s see if he can claim 300 more.
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