In wake of beloved wrestling coach’s death, Rich Nitsch’s daughter, 2 former athletes push forward with mentoring program made in his image

Jay Senter - May 25, 2018 10:11 am
Becker Truster (from left), Natalie Nitsch and Dane Erickson have launched a mentoring program for Indian Hills students in honor of Natalie’s father Rich.

When Rich Nitsch was growing up, he had a hard time focusing on school work.

His family moved from town to town in central Kansas so frequently that by the time he arrived in high school, he’d attended classes in something like a dozen buildings. The lack of consistency left him listless, uninterested in hitting the books.

And then he found wrestling.

Rich Nitsch, right, saw wrestling as a tool for reaching kids struggling in school.

The sport gave him structure. And a motivation to do his classwork — at least enough to stay eligible to compete in meets. His natural talent combined with hard work earned him a scholarship to wrestle at Emporia State University. After college, he went on to a start a career as a high school teacher before transitioning to work as an FBI investigator, where he attained the rank of Certified Intelligence Officer before retiring after 24 years.

Without wrestling, he would say, none of it would have been possible. He wouldn’t have had the means — or the motivation — to go to college.

So in his retired life living in Prairie Village and watching his youngest child Natalie going through school, Rich felt a drive to introduce youngsters who were facing the same academic and stability challenges he did as a kid to the sport he credits with putting him on a path for success.

Through the Kansas City Wrestling Club and the Shawnee Mission School District’s middle school sports programs, he mentored kids in grappling and in life.

After a few years working with students wrestling at Indian Hills, he noted that a number of competitors would be deemed ineligible for a meet based on their academic standings. So earlier this year he started talking with his daughter Natalie and Dane Erickson, a varsity wrestler who learned the sport under Nitsch’s tutelage, about the idea of forming a tutoring program for the young student athletes struggling with academics. The idea was that Natalie and Erickson, both enrolled in the International Baccalaureate program at SM East, would meet with Indian Hills wrestlers to help them with school work and ensure they were meeting the eligibility requirements.

The group had only had a few preliminary discussions about the idea when Rich died in March.

With an outsized personality drawn to service, Nitsch’s death left an immediate dent in the northeast Johnson County community. And it left his daughter shocked with grief.

“In those first weeks, I really just couldn’t do anything,” Natalie recalls.

But in the days after Rich’s death, Erickson felt a compulsion to move the mentoring program forward. He started working with Indian Hills administrators on setting up dates and times for struggling students to meet with mentors. He enlisted fellow SM East junior Becker Truster, who had served as a student assistant on the Indian Hills wrestling team, to help. Natalie began attending tutoring sessions and working with students as well.

“Dane’s kind of done most of it, and we’ve just been along for the ride,” Natalie said.

For the last two months of school, the three held mentoring sessions at Indian Hills with seven or eight students showing up to a typical session. Most of the time, Natalie said, they just needed someone to give them a little nudge to stay on top of their work.

“Honestly, it’s less content tutoring than encouraging them to turn the work in,” Natalie said. “Just saying, ‘C’mon! Let’s get this done!'”

Erickson said the mentoring program is made in Rich’s image. He remembers how Rich would proactively seek out the students “failing the most classes” and encourage them to start wrestling.

“He would tell them, this is it, this is the thing that is going to get you out of this and get you interested in school,” Erickson said.

Truster noted that Rich saw wrestling as one of the best ways for young people to build confidence.

“He would always say, ‘When you get turned over on your back in a wrestling match and someone’s pinning you down, there’s nothing hard in life than to get flipped back over. And once you’ve learned how to do that, you can pretty much do anything else,'” Truster said. “That’s kind of what the mentoring program is about, too. Trying to get these students back on their stomachs so they’re in a position where they can build up.”

The group held their final tutoring session of the year last week — but they’re planning on starting it up again early in the fall.

Shawnee Mission teacher of visually impaired wins Braille Institute’s Teacher of the Year award

Shawnee Mission teacher of the visually impaired Jeri Hile is the Braille Institute’s 2018 Teacher of the Year. The prestigious honor comes after an

Proposed Shawnee Mission budget includes slight property tax reduction — but not enough to offset increased home values for many

Shawnee Mission financial administrators are proposing a 2018-19 budget that would include a slight reduction to the district’s property tax rate. Chief Financial Officer

After news of special education shakeup, Shawnee Mission parents implore board to address low staff morale, poor student service

Three days after the district announced a major reorganization of its special education department, a group of Shawnee Mission parents implored the board of

After wave of resignations, Shawnee Mission announces big changes to special education department

The Shawnee Mission School District will reorganize the structure of its special education department for the coming school year and current director Jackie Chatman

SM East administration says shotgun on campus posed no threat, student ‘accidentally left hunting gear’ in car

A student who inadvertently left hunting gear including a shotgun in the trunk of his car was sent home Friday after two of his

After a change in scene, Horizons student graduates on track to pursue her dream of becoming a vet

It didn’t take Jordyn Fox long to decide SM East wasn’t a good fit for her. There were so many kids in the halls.

For Yale-bound SM East grad, high school was a time of expanding horizons, confidence

Iman Jaroudi makes no secret about the fact that she’s pushed herself hard the past four years. So while the Yale-bound SM East senior

In column, SM North student journalist challenges administrators’ rationale for stopping photographers

The SM North student who addressed the board over her concerns about the violation of student journalists’ rights after an unauthorized demonstration during National

At Center for Academic Achievement, vision for an urban farm — and community learning lab — is becoming reality

It’s not much to look at now. But ask Bob Brassard about the plans for the dusty lot behind the Shawnee Mission School District’s

SM South teacher with senior graduating from school today says she ‘wouldn’t have wanted my kids to go anywhere else’

It’s graduation time in Shawnee Mission, so we’ll be taking a look at graduating students from each of the district’s high schools this week.

Page 1 of 7512345...102030...Last »