Cicero-North Syracuse wrestling coach Dereck Bigford is retiring at the end of this season. Bigford’s teams recorded 334 wins in his 30 years at the helm and claimed 10 league titles, with 15 of his wrestlers earning Section III championships.
By E. Jay Zarett
Jon See can vividly recall an offseason wrestling tournament in Columbus, Ohio nearly 20 years ago.
See, then an eighth grader in the Cicero-North Syracuse school district, competed at the 1998 event just after finishing his first season on the Northstars varsity wrestling team. Accompanying him on the trip were his parents and one other person – his high school coach,Dereck Bigford.
Despite having the weekend off, Bigford chose to make the 475-mile trip with See and helped his wrestler drop an extra two pounds, ensuring that he qualified for the correct weight class. During the tournament, Bigford was on the sidelines, shouting words of encouragement to See throughout his matches.
“I’ll never forget that,” See said.
Parents and former players said that Bigford almost always volunteers to help the C-NS program and wrestlers, like See, in any way possible. But next year, someone new will be guiding the Northstars.
After 30 years as the head varsity wrestling coach at C-NS, Bigford is retiring following the 2016-17 season, which will conclude with one more of his wrestlers, Section III 113-pound champion Nathan Osborne, competing this weekend in the state tournament in Albany.
“When it comes to C-NS wrestling everyone thinks of Dereck Bigford,” said C-NS athletic director Timothy Bednarski. “Dereck is C-NS wrestling. There’s going to be some big shoes to fill, whoever that person is.”
Bigford, who is also a physical education teacher at Cicero Elementary School, came to C-NS following an outstanding wrestling career at SUNY Brockport and short stints, totaling three years, coaching at Holley and Sherburne-Earlville.
While at Brockport, Bigford was a two-time NCAA Division III All-American and his teams won the NCAA Division III championship twice, in 1980 and 1982. Bigford was inducted into the Brockport Athletics Hall of Fame in 1998.
Bigford said that he realized he wanted to become a wrestling coach and a physical education teacher as a ninth grader in 1974.
“I’m lucky in that regard,” he said. “A lot of people can’t make up their mind about what they want to do, end up changing jobs two (or) three times. I never felt like I was going to work. I always felt like I was going to do what I love.”
While at the helm of the Northstars program, Bigford recorded 334 career wins, captured 10 league titles and coached 15 sectional champions. Yet those who have been involved with the program say that Bigford’s impact on C-NS is much bigger than his success on the mat.
Fred Legawiec’s son, Joel, wrestled for Bigford from 1994-97. Fred said that Joel lacked focus before he joined the wrestling program, but that Bigford instilled a sense of purpose and direction in Joel, who went on to become a Loadmaster in the United States Air Force.
“Dereck shows the kids that they are important,” Legawiec said. “He shows individuals how to become team members. I saw a total change in my son his senior year.”
Legawiec, who ran the C-NS Wrestling Booster Club from 1994 to 1998, added that Bigford treated every wrestler in his program the same way, regardless of their skill level.
“It doesn’t matter if you are second in the state or you’re a junior varsity wrestler, you are part of the team,” Legawiec said. “He measures the kids by their attitudes, what they do and how they interact with the team.”
As a senior on the C-NS wrestling team in 2000, Stephen Raulli fell in the sectional semifinals, back when only one sectional wrestler in each weight class got to the state tournament. Raulli was devastated following the loss that ended his career but, Bigford was mat-side to offer words of encouragement.
“(Dereck) reminded me that he didn’t reach all of his goals in high school,” Raulli said. “I took that as ‘you know what, it’s just a wrestling match. There’s still a lot more to life.’”
Raulli, a 2004 United States Naval Academy graduate who is currently enrolled in the Boston University School of Medicine, said that wrestling for Bigford at C-NS had a major influence on his life.
“Being on his wrestling team, I think I’m a much different person,” Raulli said “There are things I did that I probably never would have done if I hadn’t wrestled for him. “
See, now a software engineer at SRC, still remembers how important Bigford’s presence was to him as a 12-year old competing in Ohio.
“I couldn’t imagine going into a match without that (support),” See said. “(Bigford) was definitely a role model in my life.”