Lacey High School Mourns the Passing of Former Star Wrestler Dennis Whitby
The first time Russ Witt encountered Dennis Whitby he got a taste of what made the Lacey High School wrestling standout so unique, both on and off the mat.
Witt, then a junior during the 1996 season who was coming off a district championship as a sophomore at 103 pounds, was working over a talented freshman, taking down the younger yet heavier grappler continuously as the two scrapped inside the Lions' wrestling room. Witt expected to see frustration from the frosh, but that was not the way Whitby approached life.
"Each time I took him down he got up and sported a huge smile and said, 'Man, I love that shot'," Witt recalled. "I wanted to scream, 'NO. You got it all wrong! You can't be happy being taken down. But that was who he was. He appreciated having to learn to counter speed, he enjoyed the process of getting better, and he respected the art of the takedown."
The Lacey High School community is mourning the loss of one of its all-time greats this week after Whitby, 41, passed away on Saturday, Feb. 12 as a result of a motorcycle accident in Virginia where he resided, according to local reports. Whitby was a physical education teacher at Greenbrier Middle School in Chesapeake, Va., and a coach at a local wrestling club. A GoFundMe page has been set up to help offset the funeral expenses.
That day in the practice room was the start of Whitby's exceptional high school and college wrestling career, and also the start of a great friendship between Witt and Whitby.
"When I was an upperclassman in high school many years ago I was the one who was supposed to be teaching him," Witt said. "But it turned out it was the other way around."
On the mat, Whitby was a star on some of the best teams in program history. A 1999 Lacey High School graduate, he won district titles in 1998 and 1999, leading the Lions to the District 24 team championship as a senior. He also led Lacey to its first and only Shore Conference Tournament final appearance in 1999. He went on to claim NJSIAA Region 6 individual titles in 1998 at 145 pounds and in 1999 at 152 pounds. He was also a region runner-up as a sophomore.
In 1998, Whitby finished fourth in the state tournament at 145 pounds, doing so while wrestling with a broken hand. He returned during his senior year to finish third in New Jersey at 152 pounds. The 1999 season was also a special year because he shared the podium with his younger brother, Steve, who placed fourth in the state at 145 pounds. When Whitby graduated he was Lacey's all-time wins leader with 109 and currently sits fifth in the program's all-time wins list.
Whitby then wrestled collegiately at Old Dominion University where he was a Colonial Athletic Association conference champion and an NCAA qualifier during the 2000 season.
Like the Whitbys, the Maugeri Family is synonymous with Lacey High School wrestling. Frank Maugeri was the Lions' head coach during Whitby's career and fondly remembers all of his contributions to the sport and what made him such a great person.
"I am still in shock and incredibly heartbroken to hear about Dennis's passing," Maugeri said. "He was a great athlete but a better person. In the years that I had coaching Dennis, it was always an honor to have him in the room; there was no one more respected and liked than Dennis. He made everyone around him better because of his personality, work ethic, and leadership skills. He never had a negative thing to say about anyone and always pushed everyone to do there best.
"Dennis's accomplishments on the mat are too long to list but anyone associated with NJ wrestling knew who he was and that he was one of the best to come out of the state. Dennis was also unselfish with his time. I remember I asked him to come to the Lacey Recreation wrestling program so that he could help coach some of the younger kids because all of the kids looked up to him, and it was amazing to watch how good and patient he was with the kids. Just to see the reaction of the kids having one of their heroes on the mat with them was priceless and I was happy to hear that he continued coaching and teaching after his graduation from college."
"I cannot leave out Dennis's family, who are incredible people and who were such a big part of the Lacey wrestling family. They were always there to support both Dennis and Steven when they wrestled and no words can express my sorrow and sympathy to the family."
For all that Whitby was on the mat, he was so much more in other walks of life. He was a boat captain and an avid surfer and snowboarder. He sought adventure, yearning to experience all life had to offer. And he did with an aura of passion that was also welcoming. His toughness on the wrestling mat was equaled by his easy-going nature off of it.
Witt was two years older than Whitby and had a Hall of Fame career of his own for the Lions. He won the 1997 New Jersey 119-pound state championship and to this day stands as Lacey's first and only wrestling state champion. He is also the program's only three-time region champion and one of three three-time district champions. He finished with 100 career wins and wrestled at Bloomsburg University. He was recently the head coach at Christian Brothers Academy where he led the Colts to the 2016 Shore Conference Tournament title, two state sectional titles, and coached current Rutgers four-time All-American Sebastian Rivera to the 2016 113-pound NJ state title.
That drilling session changed things for Witt, offering him a different perspective. Dennis Whitby seemed to have that effect on people.
"He taught me how to have fun, how to turn work into play, how to focus on what you have and not what you don’t," Witt said. "I will never be able to look at a wrestling mat, ocean wave, or mountain again without thinking of my buddy Dennis."
Below is the full video replay from Whitby's 1997 Region 6 championship match. Witt also provided a tribute he wrote about his late friend, which can be read after the video.
By Russ Witt
"It was 1996, my junior year of high school and I remember wrestling this underclassman who was a freshman at the time. He was fast, fluid, and extremely flexible. He flowed so effortlessly in and out of moves, but there was this one series where we were wrestling live and I remember being able to snatch a high single on him. He was taller than me which made it easier to get to his legs, and he weighed more than me so I was just a tad quicker. Each time I took him down, he got up, sported a huge smile, and said, “man, I love that shot!” I wanted to scream, “NO!” “You got it all wrong. You can’t be happy being taken down.” But that was who he was. He appreciated having to learn to counter speed, he enjoyed the process of getting better, and he respected the art of the takedown. He was after all a master at being “smooth.”
It was ironic he was a wrestler because he was someone who would never hurt a fly and he treated everyone he met with a kind heart. However, despite being laid back and soft-spoken he was tough as nails. After a snowboarding accident the week before regions his sophomore year, he wrestled the entire tournament with a broken hand. Wearing a soft cast, some medical tape, and a tennis ball in his hand he finished in second place.
It was fitting he moved to the south because he exemplified the warmth and charm of a southern gentleman. For a few wrestling seasons, Dennis brought the high school team he coached up from Virginia for our annual CBA Colt Classic wrestling tournament. I remember texting him during our seeding meeting because we wanted to try our best to give his wrestlers fair seeds. However, his motto was, “seed us wherever we are grateful for the opportunity to compete out of state.”
His team was also one of the few teams who cleaned up their entire section of bleachers where they sat. I vividly remember him and the other coach leading the kids and parents in passing around a trash bag. They always left their area spotless. It was so noticeable that Tournament Director Mike Baldi commented by saying, "they can come back any time they want.”
In 2011 we got together for a surf trip down in El Salvador. He flew in from Virginia and I flew in from New Jersey. We stayed at a completely bare-bones encampment with barb wire fencing which served to protect us from the locals. There was no TV, AC, or even hot water, but for Dennis the coffee was strong, the waves were good, the locals were friendly and together we had a blast. I look back at some of the photos and see the same kid who I wrestled with in high school. Someone who brought playfulness and joy to everything he did. Even though there was a language barrier between us and our hosts, Dennis found a way to interact with them by clowning around with the kids and taking funny photos and stringing together a few Spanish sentences here and there. He was always someone who put you at ease the moment you were around him. In a world where people chase money, fame, followers, and likes on social media, Dennis did not seem to care about any of that stuff. Instead, he chased joy. He chased the sun, snow, and surf. He was a man who had a worn-out passport, but a life that was put together. He did not simply exist, he lived.
I will never be able to look at a wrestling mat, ocean wave, or mountain again without thinking of my buddy Dennis. When I was an upperclassman in high school many years ago I was the one who was supposed to be teaching him, but it turned out it was the other way around. He taught me how to have fun, how to turn work into play, how to focus on what you have and not what you don’t, and if you make a mess, to clean it up. It is a recipe for a life well-lived.
Thank you Dennis for showing me the ropes!"