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'He impacted a lot of lives'

NITRO, W.Va. -- Dave Burns learned what it took to be successful in not only wrestling but life under former Nitro coach Pat Vance.

It's a fitting tribute, then, that Burns came home this weekend, bringing his Roanoke (Va.) Catholic High School squad to the Pat Vance Invitational for the first time since he became head coach in 2000.

The impact that Vance had on Burns was evident as the Roanoke Catholic coach had to fight back tears several times Friday evening in talking about his former coach. Vance, the longtime football and wrestling coach and athletic director at Nitro, suffered a debilitating stroke in February 2001.

"Hard work, discipline and the moral compass that we all look for,'' said Burns as he ticked off what Vance taught a generation of Wildcat athletes. "He was a very good coach. He could connect with the kids. He impacted a lot of lives.''

A chance encounter Burns had this fall with Nitro assistant principal Drew McClanahan at a WVU football game in Morgantown led to the chance that Burns had been waiting on for a lifetime.

"I asked Drew McClanahan how Pat was doing,'' said Burns, who again had to pause to collect himself. "He said, 'Ok.' So I said if it's OK with your program, we'd like to bring our team and wrestle in the invitational and support Coach Vance.

"He said, 'I don't see a problem.' I talked it over with our coaching staff and they said it'd be really good. It's a good trip for our kids. Good competition, good programs and good coaching.''

Burns competed for Vance on the mat in 1974-1975, working his way up from the 'B' team as a junior to qualifying for the state tournament as a senior after finishing runner-up in the regionals.

Burns wrestled in the Nitro Invitational in 1975, which after several name changes through the years was renamed in 2004 to honor Vance. The annual wrestling event at Nitro High School has been held since 1968.   

Burns then walked on at West Virginia University and competed for another legend in Craig Turnbull for two years before concentrating on his studies. Burns assisted with the program at Andrew Jackson Middle School for a time before moving to the Roanoke area in 1984.

"I was blessed to be around a lot of good coaches,'' Burns said. "I finished up pretty good for a second-year wrestler [at Nitro], but I came out of a good program. It wasn't about the wrestling. It was about the hard work and commitment. Success on the mat was a byproduct.''

Burns, along with several fathers, started the wrestling program at Roanoke Catholic in 2000. Roanoke Catholic, which has 448 students in grades kindergarten through 12, has produced one state champion, 26 state place-winners and 11 national qualifiers in 14 seasons under Burns.

"Wrestling is a very good program for this high school,'' Burns said. "Whether they're 106 pounds or 220, there's a home for them. We've developed the program down through the years. We've got a pretty good program for the number of kids we have.''

Burns now finds himself passing on the same virtues that he soaked up from Vance.

"It's about creating opportunities for the kids,'' said Burns. "Make them better than they were when they walked through the door.

"I enjoy and like to see the kids be successful. It's not about the wins. It's about the effort. They'll take that off the mat and go do things.''

Roanoke Catholic was 13th out of 15 teams with 32 points after the first day of competition Friday. Johnson Central (Ky.) compiled 99 points to lead after the opening day, with Riverside  in second with 76. St. Albans (66), Winfield (601/2) and Capital (58) rounded out the top five. (See Page 2B for team standings and semifinal pairings.)

The event will resume at 9:30 a.m. today with the championship matches set for 3:30 p.m.

Reach Tommy R. Atkinson at tatkinson@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4811.


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