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Having spent the majority of his life in Ohio, Gary Canter was surprised when a teaching job in Kentucky came his way.
It was 1985 and Canter had just earned his teaching degree. He didn’t know much about Hodgenville, but was happy to finally get a chance to be a teacher. So he and his wife D.J. packed up and headed south.
Canter was going to be a science teacher at LaRue County High School. But there was a catch that came with the job offer: the school was in need of someone willing to coach the girls’ basketball team. Canter took both positions but only planned to stay at the school for a year — maybe two — and then move on.
“We came down with the intentions of this being a springboard job to get me some teaching experience,” Gary Canter said. “When I took the position, I was looking to coach. They needed a science teacher who was willing to coach, so we took a chance and moved down here. We thought we would stay for a year and see what it was like, and then maybe move on from there.”
But as fate would have it, that didn’t happen. As D.J. put it, the Canters loved the area and decided to stay. It had become home.
“We fell in love with the community and staff at the high school,” she said. “We loved how the whole community cared for and supported students.”
Before they knew it, one year has turned into 28. But the journey didn’t come without its ups and downs.
THE EARLY YEARS
Canter took over the Lady Hawks in the 1986-87 season. Things didn’t go quite as well as Canter had hoped as they went 0-48 in his first two seasons.
“My record probably speaks to the fact that I shouldn’t have been a girls’ basketball coach,” Canter deadpanned. “When you have to pick up a book and get videotapes to learn what the sport’s about, it’s probably not the best position to be in. But I think they were afraid they were going to lose the program.”
LaRue County managed to win a few games in his final two seasons, but Canter still felt he was out of his league on the hardwood.
A golden opportunity came along in 1990, one that Canter couldn’t afford to pass up. The school wanted to create a wrestling team. Naturally, they turned to Canter — a former wrestler who knew a thing or two about the sport.
“When the opportunity to start a wrestling program came about, I knew this was God’s plan,” D.J. said. “As the first year unfolded, his opportunity to make a difference in the lives of many young men and the sport of wrestling began. There has never been a day that he thought he wanted to stop coaching and do something else.”
The early going wasn’t easy. Canter had to convince fans and potential wrestlers that his style of the sport wasn’t the same they were used to watching on TV, that there were no ropes or a squared circle involved.
He also struggled to convince his first-year wrestlers to wear a singlet.
“The vast majority were afraid to put on a singlet,” Canter said. “A lot of people did not understand the sport at the time and they didn’t understand you had to wear a singlet so they wouldn’t get tangled in their clothes. I had a hard time getting guys out that first year, and we struggled. I don’t think we won a dual that first year at all, but eventually we got people to buy into the program.”
Once that happened, the program blossomed.
BUILDING A LASTING LEGACY
After Dan Heady won the team’s first district championship, Mike Hunt was the first Hawk to qualify for the KHSAA State Wrestling Tournament in 1995. Former standout Jason Detre became LaRue County’s first state champion in 1998 when he won the 189-pound title.
The success continued in 1999, when the Hawks won the first of five State Duals titles and finished fourth at the state tournament. Jim Shaw and Detre won championships that season.
It only got better from there as LaRue County has finished in the top 10 at State every year since 1998-99.
Caleb Canter, a 170-pound senior who’s undefeated this season, said it’s hard to fathom what would have happened had his parents left Hodgenville after one year as originally planned.
“Who knows if LaRue County even has a wrestling team right now if Dad didn’t come here,” he said. “LaRue County has been one of the best teams in the state. For the past 10 years, we’ve been in the top three or four in the state. It’s just amazing the things he’s been able to do here.”
Gary Canter, however, knows none of his success would be possible without the many wrestlers he’s coached over the years.
Without them, LaRue County wouldn’t have become the well-known — and sometimes hated — program it is today.
“Canter, by definition, is LaRue County wrestling,” said former Hawk Jack LaRue. “There have been many great wrestlers, state champs, placers and even All-Americans come through the ranks over the past years, but Canter is synonymous with LaRue County wrestling in this area, across the state and in other states that the team has traveled to.”
There’s just one thing missing from Canter’s resume: a state championship.
The Hawks have come close before, finishing second in 2001, 2005 and 2012. Gary Canter admitted not winning a state title gnaws at him.
“I’d be lying if I said not entirely,” he said. “I know we should have won it. Unfortunately, we haven’t had the luck when we’ve needed it. I don’t dwell on not winning the team title because wrestling is such an individual sport.”
On the warm-up shirt of every LaRue County wrestler is the slogan “Hawks Forever.”
It’s a phrase heard throughout the program, whether after a practice or tournament. It’s something everyone who ever donned the blue and white singlet can hold onto — no matter how long it’s been since they’ve stepped foot on a mat for the Hawks.
It’s even trickled down to the youth program, which former wrestler Damon Barnes helps run. But what does it mean?
“To me, it means that once you’ve wrestled for LaRue County, you are always a Hawk,” Barnes said. “This idea comes to fruition when you look at how many former wrestlers have helped out with coaching or are refereeing when the opportunity arises.”
Eric Burrell is one such example.
A Central Hardin assistant, the 2004 LaRue County graduate has aspirations of becoming a head coach. He said “Hawks Forever” means wrestlers are still part of the family, even if they’re wearing the colors of a rival school.
“I love Coach Canter and I love his family,” Burrell said. “If you ever needed a place to stay, you could crash in his basement. If you ever needed anything, he was always there. He would cut off an arm for you if he had to. He’s got a great relationship with all of his former wrestlers.
“He was just my coach,” he added. “He didn’t have an aura about him, but that’s just Coach Canter. He asked a lot out of us and we gave it to him. He was a father figure for a lot of guys on the team. He’s just a good guy.”
TIME FOR A NEW CHAPTER
After 23 years guiding the Hawks, Canter is eager to start a new chapter in life. Caleb is graduating this year and his daughter, Hannah, will soon start medical school.
Gary Canter announced earlier this year that he would be retiring following the season. And while he said it was a tough decision to make, the coach said it’s the right one.
“It’s kind of hard because you kind of think, ‘What will I be doing next year at this time?’” Canter said. “I don’t expect to go and abandon the sport completely. I see myself donning some stripes and being involved in some aspect.
“I’m sure I will get the itch to coach again, but D.J. and I were talking the other night about how it’s time to close that chapter and do something different for a while,” he added. “It’s been a great experience for me and my family. But it’s time to move on. I don’t want to be like those retired boxers who come back and don’t know when to quit. I want to go out with some dignity and pride, and look back and say it was the right choice.”
Area coaches said Gary Canter will leave a lasting impact not just on the area but the state. He helped move the state tournament from the Frankfort Civic Center to the Kentucky Horse Park’s Alltech Arena and has served as president of the Kentucky Wrestling Coaches’ Association for several years.
“He’s meant a lot to the sport,” veteran Meade County coach Bob Davis said. “As the president of the coaches’ association, he got a lot of things accomplished. He got a lot of things done in the right direction. He got our state tournament moved to the Horse Park. I know a lot of people don’t like the Horse Park, but I thought it was one of the greatest things to happen because you can put a lot more mats down and get a lot of things done. And we’re down to two days for State instead of three.
“Everything’s been positive,” he added. “Everything has been toward the wrestlers; everything’s been for the wrestlers. He’s always a giver; he’s never been a taker. He’ll be well missed. I’m going to miss him.”
Central Hardin coach Russ Pike said one of the best things about Gary Canter is his willingness to help other coaches. Pike knew he could always turn to him whenever he needed something.
“He’s been a pretty good answer guy,” Pike said. “My first couple of years I was struggling and didn’t really know what was going on, but Gary was always there. If I had any questions about it, he would be there to help coach you along. It’s been fun to coach against him. He’s done an amazing job keeping that program as one of the top teams in the state. I’ve got a lot of respect for him.”
Canter’s final home match is Wednesday when the Hawks host Oldham County at 6 p.m.
But Canter doesn’t want the focus on him. Instead, he wants all the attention on his wrestlers — especially the seven seniors (Nathan Bell, Caleb Canter, B.J. Carman, Spencer Hines, Caleb Milliner, Tanner Mouser and Jared Whitlock) who will be recognized that night.
“I don’t want it to be about me. I want it to be about our seniors; they deserve the credit, not me,” he said. “I hope I’ve helped to build a lot of character, but I don’t want it to be about me. I want it to be about the seniors and their year. Those guys are the ones doing the dirty work and making me look good. I’ve been blessed to have them; it’s not so much the other way around.”
Caleb Canter said it’s definitely going to be an emotional night.
“Wednesday night will probably be pretty tough just knowing he’ll never have another home match and I’ll never have another home match,” he said. “Both of us want it to end good for us, and Wednesday night will be a big sentimental thing for us.”
Gary Canter certainly will miss coaching. And after this long a tenure, who can blame him for that?
But his impact and influence will be felt at LaRue County for years to come.
“I don’t know how the program will be without Coach Canter,” LaRue said. “His legacy will not fade because it is so profound. The roots have spread. And the tradition which he started will continue, but will not be the same. Everyone will remember Gary Canter. It will be odd not having him in the driver’s seat, but hopefully he will still come around to pass on knowledge, give advice and be able to enjoy what he created at a small rural school in little old LaRue County.”
Josh Claywell can be reached at (270) 505-1752 or firstname.lastname@example.org.