ALBION — Twelve years ago, Dale Bonge got quite the surprise for his 50th birthday. The longtime Boone Central wrestling coach thought his wife was taking him out to eat for his birthday, but instead he found himself being surprised by some of his former wrestlers who wanted to give him a little present — a customized Harley Davidson motorcycle.
“My wife said let’s go out to eat and she drove past the place we’d always eat at and pulled in, and all those people were there,” he said of the surprise that was to follow. “I took it out for a spin that night, but I had to wait a week to ride it again because I had to go to a wrestling camp the next day.”
“I plan on riding it a lot more now after this school year is over.”
He’ll have plenty of time to cruise the highways once this school year is over, as the longtime wrestling coach is hanging up the shoes after 39 years that included leading his team to five state titles — including three as an assistant coach — two state runner-up finishes and a host of individual champions, some of whom went on to be national champions at the college level.
The 62-year old Bonge is stepping down for one simple reason — his body won’t let him coach the way he wants to coach anymore.
“I like to show the moves and help out and get on the mat, and it just doesn’t work for my body now,” he said.
An old college roommate and recently-retired Winside wrestling coach, Paul Sok, gave him some advice that he took to heart.
“He said, ‘When it hurts you need to find something else,’ ” he said. “The younger coaches are really gung-ho and ready to go and they deserve that shot now.”
Bonge’s start in wrestling came back in his junior high days in Plainview when he was wrestling and playing basketball.
“I was originally going to play basketball because I was a starter on our eighth-grade team that went unbeaten, but there was a kid moving in who was better than me and another one who was a grade behind,” he said. “So my high school coach, Gary Sasse (father of current U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse) had a meeting to see who wanted to go out, and while we were there he handed out shoe orders, and that’s how I ended up in wrestling.”
His experience in wrestling in junior high was, to put it kindly, fast.
“We practiced for two weeks and I had one match,” he said, laughing.
It got better for him, though. He went on to win a state title in Class C at 132 pounds as a junior in 1973, and went on to wrestle for McCook Junior College and Kearney State College (now University of Nebraska at Kearney) before finishing his teaching degree.
His start as a coach couldn’t have come at a more opportune time, as he joined the Columbus High coaching staff prior to the start of a four-year run of success for the Discoverers.
“My first three years there we won state, and we got third my fourth year,” he said.
That four-year stint in Columbus proved to be a valuable learning experience for the new coach that he carried to Albion when he was hired there in 1983.
“I learned a lot in Columbus about coaching and working with kids in general, and those first few years of coaching really are different,” he said. “They teach you a lot of stuff in college that helps, but until you actually get in there and do it, it’s a real eye-opener.”
Albion has had a tradition of success in wrestling over the years, so when he stepped in as the new coach in 1983, he inherited a group of hard-nosed, hard-working kids who operated that entire season under the radar.
“I was young and stupid and didn’t know better and I told them we’d be better than what they had been, and then we got lucky enough to win state my first year,” he said. “We weren’t even rated in the top 10.”
Led by heavyweight Randy Stuhr, the Cardinals won the Class B state title, and followed that up with a runner-up finish the next year, with Terry Fisher winning the first of two state titles under Bonge.
After five years in Albion, Bonge seriously considered moving to the college level, and is happy now that he didn’t.
“I’d planned on staying here for five years and then move on to something bigger,” he said. “I’d interviewed at Black Hills State after their longtime coach had resigned, and it sounded like a good deal at the time.”
Bonge’s potential departure came during a period where colleges across the country were dropping wrestling programs to satisfy Title IX requirements, and he discovered that he was going to be moving to a school that was ready to kill its wrestling program.
“I kind of got the vibe that I’d be there one year and then they’d drop the program, and that’s exactly what they did, so I was happy I didn’t take that job,” he said.
Bonge continued to have success coaching the Cardinals throughout the 1980s and 1990s, repeating his team’s early success with a Class C state title in 1995 and a runner-up finish the following year. He coached a trio of multiple-champion wrestlers, including three-time champion Doug Borer (1991-93) and two-time champions Fisher (1985-86) and Mike Grape (1988-1989).
“The 1985 team was better than the 1984 team, but I messed that one up,” he said. “We had the right stuff with the 1995 team, and the 1996 team was second to Omaha Gross in Class B and Nathan Swerczek (171) and Ryan Christo (189) both won for us.”
Watching kids develop as wrestlers is something Bonge has always enjoyed, and the specialization of younger athletes today has made the sport much better than it was when he was first starting out in the sport.
“Watching kids develop is really what it’s all about,” he said. “You want them to learn about hard work and how it pays off . . . There is a lot more specialization today and kids get good at an early age. It’s phenomenal how much better they are today compared to my day. A lot of these kids come into high school with tournament experience and national championships, and the discrepancy between higher-level and lower-level wrestlers have increased.”
As a result, the number of younger wrestlers who win state titles and go on to win multiple state titles has increased, he said.
“Wrestlers were pretty green as freshmen when I first started, but now you see a lot of freshmen come in and win state titles,” he said. “Up until the ’90s there had only been two four-state champions in Nebraska and now there are a plethora of them because they started preparing a lot earlier.”
Bonge has coached a dozen state champions during his run as Boone Central’s coach, and two of his wrestlers — neither of whom won state titles in high school — went on to win national titles in college.
Jake Stephenson was an NAIA national champion at Morningside College, and Josh Majerus won an NCAA Division II title during his career at Chadron State.
Majerus has followed in his high school coach’s footsteps, taking his wrestling talents to the corner as a coach at Twin River High School.
“(Bonge) introduced me to the sport of wrestling,” Majerus said. “I’m 6-foot-5, and you’d think I would have been a basketball player, but he got me into wrestling and I just fell in love with the sport because of him.”
Majerus said Bonge would hire him as a coach for summer camps while he was in college, and that experience helped him out as he went into teaching and started coaching high school wrestling, reaching back on what Bonge taught him to bring to his wrestlers.
“Going into college, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to be, but it’s because of him that I’m a teacher and a coach and I’m loving it,” he said. “What he taught about conditioning and work ethic and confidence and the fun part of wrestling, he was always very enthused with the sport and I got a lot of that from him.”
Bonge built a legacy at Albion during his 35-year career with the Cardinals. The NSWCA Hall of Fame member was a two-time Nebraska Coaches Association Coach of the Year, a finalist for the National High School Coaches Association Coach of the Year award, a three-time NSWCA Coach of the Year and the 1991 Nebraska USA Wrestling Man of the Year.
Bonge said he would love to see Majerus take over the program once he steps aside, and remembered the fun he had working with kids like him and Stephenson.
“Those kids were a hoot to work with and were always trying to come up with new moves, and Josh about killed me his senior year,” Bonge said. “Jake had graduated (Majreus’) senior year and they were workout partners, so Josh ended up beating the tar out of me in the wrestling room that next year.”
It’s those relationships Bonge will remember as he coaches his last match at this week’s Nebraska State Wrestling Tournament and rides off into the sunset at the end of the school year.
“You develop great relationships with the kids you coach,” he said. “The group who got me that bike was a special group and they involved everybody from all the years I’ve been around. Those relationships are tremendous, and you never forget those things.”