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United Township's anthletic director Mark Pustelnik and wrestling coach Lambros Fotos

United Township athletic director Mark Pustelnik and wrestling coach Lambros Fotos are pictured together in the high school's Hall of Fame.

EAST MOLINE — Mark Pustelnik and Lambros Fotos are the only individual state champions in the history of the United Township High School wrestling program.

However, the pair have much more in common. Both have been inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame, and both made the conscious choice to return to their alma mater to teach in the classroom and coach their favorite sport to help shape the lives of young people.

Fotos, the Panthers’ current head wrestling coach, even wrestled during the head-coaching tenure of Pustelnik, now UT’s athletic director.

“Lambros was the hardest worker I’ve ever had the pleasure of coaching,” Pustelnik said. “I simply could not push him hard enough; the expectations he placed on himself were sky-high.”

The same could be said of Pustelnik, better known by his nickname, “Bam.”

In addition to winning the 98-pound state title in 1985, Pustelnik finished second at state at 105 the following season. He accepted a scholarship from Northern Iowa, where Pustelnik went on to earn four letters and qualify for the national tournament before receiving his college degree in Health Education in 1991.

At UNI, Pustelnik also won the United States Open Wrestling Tournament at 125.5 in April of 1990. The win qualified him for the Pan-American Games, held in Las Lenas, Argentina, where Pustelnik won the silver medal, losing only to Olivera Gonzales of Cuba.

“I don’t mind confessing that the gold medal match was one of the best learning experiences of my wrestling career, even though I lost,” said Pustelnik. “Coming from the United States, and participating in an international competition, you quickly learn that wrestlers from many smaller nations have far different incentives, and a primary goal of defeating Americans.”

After serving as a graduate assistant coach at UNI for one year, Pustelnik decided to end his competitive wrestling career and put his education to work, accepting a teaching and junior high coaching position in Sherrard.

“At the time, there simply was not enough money available to us, maybe a total of $750 per month, to continue to pursue wrestling, and it was time for me to think about turning my energy toward helping young people,” Pustelnik said.

In 1993, Pustelnik returned to UT as a health teacher, and the following year was appointed head wrestling coach. He led the program for 13 years before being promoted to the position of assistant principal, and then AD.

Fotos was a four-time state placewinner during Pustelnik’s coaching tenure, capped by the 145-pound title in 2002, which earned him a scholarship to wrestle at the University of Illinois for Quad-Cities native and Alleman great Mark Johnson.

Fotos wrestled for the Illini from 2002-06, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in history, before following his mentor’s lead and returning to UT to teach and be an assistant coach in 2007. Fotos assumed leadership of the wrestling program in 2011.

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“I had one goal, and that was to return to my hometown as a teacher, and to continue the process of building a top-notch wrestling program,” Fotos said. “I started wrestling in the first grade, following in the footsteps of my older brothers, John and Paris. As the youngest, I had to develop the determination to be stronger and mentally tougher than other kids my age, and that focus and resolve didn’t work out too well for anyone I faced on the mat in junior wrestling, and later in high school.”

Both Pustelnik and Fotos share another meaningful characteristic.

“In my case, winning my state title was special because my parents, Ron and Peg, were able to be there and share the triumph with me and my teammates,” Pustelnik said. “They sacrificed a great deal, the cost of enrolling me in countless junior tournaments, and night after night of practice, so the joy and pride I saw in their eyes meant everything to me.”

The same was true for Fotos.

“I expected to win a state title; you have to have that mentality in an individual sport,” Fotos said. “But my parents, Gus and Toula, owned a small café, and never hesitated in making sure my brothers and I had every opportunity to pursue our goals, no matter the cost or what they had to do without, so I was wrestling more for them than myself.”

Pustelnik and Fotos have both experienced success as well as some frustration in their coaching careers.

“I had to learn the hard way that wrestling is an individual sport certainly, but the inspiration and support of teammates is the difference-maker for many competitors,” said Pustelnik. “As a coach, you have to determine what the limits are in communicating with, pushing and setting expectations for each individual, and it is much the same now in my position as athletic director, as my role is to establish expectations for each program at UT.”

“I’ve had a few kids quit on me because wrestling is hard, hard work,” Fotos added. “And building a program entails creating a culture of excellence, starting with the lower grades, where student-athletes learn to believe in themselves, set very high expectations, and go out and work their butts off to achieve.”

The one thing that separates the two is something Pustelnik hopes his protégé will also experience some day soon.

“I had the pleasure of winning a state title for UT, and with Lambros, coaching a title winner for UT as well,” Pustelnik said. “Coaching Lam to his championship was actually more fun and meaningful for me than winning my own.

“Now it’s Lam’s turn. I tell him all the time, ‘Win one, OK you did that, now coach one.’”

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