What is likely the greatest-ever local sports dynasty is nearing its end. At least, in its current form.
That became apparent last week when Timberlane wrestling coach Barry Chooljian announced that the 2019-2020 season will be his last as head coach, capping a remarkable 37-year reign.
Chooljian’s record over the years borders on the unbelievable. As New Hampshire’s all-time winningest coach, he enters his final season with a stunning 598-50-5 record. He’s led the Owls to 16 straight Meet of Champions titles and 26 of the last 27 Division 1 titles.
In dual meets, the Owls have been all but invincible. Year’s ago, they had a 103-meet unbeaten streak and they currently have won 44 straight, as well as 172 straight meets against New Hampshire teams.
Going outside the region, the Owls have won 10 New England titles under the 60-year-old Chooljian, which is more than any other team, including five straight from 2008-2012. It’s no wonder that he’s a member of the New Hampshire, New England and national Halls of Fames for wrestling.
Even Chooljian has a tough time digesting his success, but he doesn’t dwell on it, which may be why he is so beloved at Timberlane.
“The number of championships we’ve won since 1993 is staggering, and it’s hard to believe sometimes, but the tremendous winning has just been a bonus,” said Chooljian, who was a state champion himself as a student at Timberlane. “To me, the most important thing has been the relationships I’ve built with the kids over the years and my staff.
“Having kids come back who have become successful or want to return to the program and give back, that’s the most meaningful thing to me.”
Among those who have returned with success stories are All-Americans like Matt Smith, who now runs well-known training club Smitty’s Barn in Kingston, and Jay Holder, who owns a doctorate and is a teacher and head wrestling coach at Springfield College.
Others included Dimmy Gavriel, who enjoyed a career on Wall Street before joining the service and dying for his country, and Alex Smith, who graduated from West Point and enjoyed a meaningful army career before dying tragically last month.
Over the years, Chooljian developed meaningful relationships with and motivated such standouts. But his greatness, said current Timberlane assistant and former standout Tim Brown, is that he had the same connection with all of his wrestlers.
“He (Chooljian) truly believes in coaching all kids and that all kids have the opportunity to be successful,” said Brown. “For some, it’s to be an All-American, for others it’s to win a JV match.
“He sees the potential in all his wrestlers and wants to see them succeed. He doesn’t coach every athlete the same way but treats them all the same. His athletes love him because he loves his athletes. He has said a number of times that he has two daughters but he has hundreds of sons. He means it.”
That personal approach is as true today as it was 20 years ago, just as the overwhelming success on the mat is as steady as ever. So why, with strong sophomore and incoming freshman classes, is he ready to step down?
“I’ve been thinking about it for a couple of years and I just feel this is the right time,” said Chooljian, who plans on continuing at Timberlane as the Director of Guidance for at least two more years. “I’m excited about the future of the program and I wanted to make sure the next coach has a good group to work with.”
And just who might the next coach be? The likely leading candidates are longtime assistant Dan Donovan and Brown, who turned around the middle school program within the last decade when it had started to slip and is a valuable asset on the varsity level as well. Both wrestled for Chooljian and then have coached with him.
“I know the program will be in good hands whoever gets the job,” said Chooljian. “I’ve had some great assistants and the group I have now — Dan Donovan, Tim Brown and Dan Woodworth and the others — is as good as it gets. I’m sure they’ll continue to work together no matter who is head coach.”
Brown is sure of that. “I know we’ll stick together and, whoever gets it, will have the full support of the staff,” he said.
And that sentiment may be one of Chooljian’s greatest contributions, says Timberlane principal Don Woodworth, who was a head coach for the Owls and then a co-coach with Chooljian for several years before focusing on administration duties.
“The fact that everyone on the staff wrestled for him says a lot,” said Woodworth. “The school embraces wrestling and he’s been the face of Timberlane wrestling for years but, because of what he’s established, his legacy will continue.”
And, says Chooljian: “I’ll be around for the transition. I want it to be a smooth transition and, by making this decision now, I think it will be.”
The Chooljian dynasty
598-50-5 record in 36 years
Won 103 straight dual meets in 1990s, currently has won 44 straight
Captured the last 172 straight dual meets in New Hampshire
Won 26 of last 27 straight Division 1 titles and 27 overall and the last 16 Meet of Champions crowns
Placed first in New England a record 10 times, including five straight (2008-2012)
Top Chooljian moments
Winning first state title in 1987
Capturing first New England title in 1996
Winning five New England titles in a row, 2008-2012
Coaching national champion Matt Smith — with Don Woodworth — in Cleveland
Coaching USA national team this year with (Timberlane standout) Connor McGonagle on the team. He won and the team won
Promoter of the sport
Almost as much as Barry Chooljian has contributed to Timberlane wrestling is what he’s done for wrestling in general, always willing to do whatever he can to boost the sport.
One thing that stands out for me is that when he calls the Eagle-Tribune with results from big tournament, he usually goes out of his way to get results from other local schools and wrestlers, something very few coaches will do. And he’s often highly complimentary of opposing wrestlers.