By Eileen Voyles; Photograph by Ali Waxman
“Break it Down”
Thirty sweat-drenched wrestlers rush to the center of the mat room, clapping loudly in unison as 24-year-old head coach Brandon Bucher takes a knee after another grueling practice for the Hershey High School grapplers. The claps quiet.
Bucher begins to instruct: “This is our time. This is our time to peak.”
His first singlet was bright purple, size 4 extra small. The little wrestling shoes stretched out to about five inches and his earliest headgear could maybe protect a large grapefruit.
“I’ve been involved with wrestling for a long time,” laughs Bucher, who hails from Dillsburg. “We were a wrestling family growing up, and I just lived for it. I’ve always loved the sport.”
As a sophomore in high school, Bucher, a standout athlete, began making plans for the future, which he hoped would include college wrestling, a degree in education and someday a head coaching position in the wrestling hub of Central Pa.
Virginia’s George Mason University offered him a wrestling scholarship, and Bucher was on his way to fulfilling his dreams. At Mason, he qualified for the NCAA Division I National Championship tournament before earning a degree in health and physical education.
He spotted a posting for a physical education teacher in Hershey and was thrilled to get the job. He also accepted a part-time role as assistant coach at another school.
But two weeks later, Hershey’s athletic director called. It seemed they needed to kill two birds with one stone. Along with the teaching job, they wanted Bucher as head wrestling coach, too. It was all or nothing.
“At that point, I had a decision to make. I didn’t know if I was ready to head up a program. I’d always dreamed of being a head coach, but thought it would come much later in my career, not at 22. I really took time to reflect,” Bucher recalls.
Before accepting the position, Bucher turned to his parents for advice.
“My parents just told me that if I took the job, I needed to prepare myself for the days when I would feel overwhelmed and would want to quit, that those days would surely come.”
Relying on the tools he had learned through his education classes and hoping they would translate to the mat room, Bucher took the job.
“I didn’t even know how to order gear or schedule a bus,” admits Bucher. “The learning curve that first year was huge.”
The year ended in a dismal 7-12 record, and support for the young coach waned. Parents and supporters wondered openly if the young, assertive Bucher was the right fit.
“Things weren’t going real smooth after that first year. I had to figure out a way to put the pieces of the puzzle together and get through it. I knew that hard work would mean success, so we just dug in. We stayed positive and focused,” remembers the coach.
Off-season workouts helped that focus. “At the end-of-season banquet, I told everyone, ‘Tomorrow starts the new season. If we’re going to be successful, we all start again tomorrow.’ And the guys really took that to heart.”
Wrestlers showed up for early morning workouts and runs, recruited their friends and traveled around the state for tournaments on their own dime. In January, the team beat neighbor and long-time rival Lower Dauphin High School for the first time in 18 years and ended the season with a 17-4 record.
“He knows what he’s doing in the mat room,” says Hershey High School Interim Athletic Director Mike McKonly, “and his youthfulness serves him well. It’s transferred into our best wrestling season in many years.”
Bucher says, “The kids and the parents working so hard has really made the difference. It’s been amazing to be a part of it all. I’ve tried to teach my team that sometimes people doubting you is OK. It gives you the chance to prove to them and to yourself that you really can do it. You can do anything you put your mind to.”
With that mindset, Bucher ensures his wrestlers will peak for many years to come.