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The first thing that caught Tommy Dressler’s eye was the uniform.
As a kid, Dressler would attend the Memorial Day Parade in Hanover and watch with pride as his grandfather, Alan Cashman, marched with his fellow veterans in his Navy whites. He would dream about getting to wear a similar uniform one day.
He learned more about serving in the military as he grew up and spoke with numerous family members who had served. He digested the information about all the challenges that come with it while contemplating what he wanted to do with his life.
All while developing into a standout wrestler at Spring Grove Area High School.
Now a senior, Dressler has chosen both the military and the wrestling path. He has verbally committed to wrestle at Division I Lock Haven University and will be a part of the school’s Army ROTC program.
But that won’t be the extent of Dressler’s military commitment throughout his college years.
He’s already completed basic training and is a member of the Pennsylvania National Guard.
“I was always supportive of the Army,” Dressler said. “Once I saw all the benefits of the National Guard, I knew I wanted to do it.”
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How the program works
Spring Grove’s Tommy Dressler (right) has been a varsity wrestler since his freshman season and has reached the state tournament the past two seasons. (Photo: Dan Rainville, The Evening Sun)
Dressler’s original plan was to either try to wrestle for a service academy or go the ROTC route at another Division I school.
He received recruiting attention from Army, Navy, the Citadel, Clarion and Lock Haven after a standout junior season.
But after communicating with Sgt. Patrick Stevens, who recruits military candidates at a number of York County schools, the Dressler family learned of the Army National Guard’s split-training option — which allows students to enlist in the reserves while still in high school.
Students who participate in the program complete basic training the summer between their junior and senior years of high school. They then are required to spend one weekend a month training with a National Guard unit their senior year and throughout college. They are paid for that time.
And here was the most enticing part for Dressler: Individuals who enter the program earn time toward the U.S. military’s 20-year retirement mark. That means he could graduate from an ROTC program as a second lieutenant with five-plus years of military service already on his resume. Cadets who graduate from service academies as lieutenants don’t have that additional benefit.
“We ran it by his guidance counselor and the (ROTC) Cadre at Lock Haven,” said Ed Dressler, Tommy’s father. “We were trying to get everybody’s perspective because Tommy has friends at all three academies, and we wanted to weigh all the benefits. But it was a pretty quick turnaround.”
Tommy talked to former Spring Grove teammate and current Air Force wrestler Anthony Hinson and decided he wanted a more typical college experience rather than attend a service academy. He also wanted to go to school fairly close to home and his National Guard training site in Elizabethtown.
That made Lock Haven a perfect fit. The Bald Eagles wrestling team is a Division I program in the Mid-American Conference and is typically competitive on a national level. Kennard-Dale legend and four-time PIAA gold medalist Chance Marsteller earned back-to-back All-American honors at Lock Haven in 2018 and 2019.
Dressler is also close friends with Hershey wrestler and Lock Haven commit Tanner Updegraff.
The Spring Grove senior verbally committed to the Bald Eagles in September after signing up for the National Guard’s split-option program this past spring. Dressler can officially sign with Lock Haven on Nov. 11 but has already been accepted into the school and its ROTC program.
Between his athletic scholarship, military scholarships and a merit scholarship, Dressler will earn a full-ride at Lock Haven. He’ll also earn just over $1,000 a month between his ROTC stipend, National Guard pay and the GI Bill.
“They’ve always been a powerhouse with a good tradition and I’ve known local wrestlers who’ve gone there,” Dressler said of why he chose Lock Haven. “I liked the coaching staff and how close it was, only about two hours from where I live. West Point in New York felt a little too far. I’ll be able to stay in touch with my family (at Lock Haven).”
Of course, Dressler won’t have a particularly typical college experience. He’ll have a minimum of seven ROTC hours a week in addition to two wrestling sessions a day and a full slate of classes. Then there will be the one weekend a month when he drives to Elizabethtown for training.
That will mean a lot of early mornings and late nights, but Dressler is fine with that.
“It’s obviously going to be stacked,” Dressler said of his schedule. “If I stay regimented and stay in contact with teachers and coaches, I can definitely work through a normal day.
‘One hell of a summer job’
Spring Grove senior Tommy Dressler poses with his parents prior to heading off to basic training at Fort Benning in Georgia this summer. (Photo: Submitted)
Dressler turned 17 this past March and officially signed up for the split-option program three weeks later, shortly after the coronavirus pandemic began.
He flew out for two months of basic training at Fort Benning in Georgia in the middle of June.
“Especially with COVID, that was one hell of a summer job,” Ed Dressler said of his son’s experience. “It gave him something to do, though.”
Everything happened fast for Tommy. He said Hinson and Updegraff shaved his head the night before he left, and the next thing he knew, he was on a bus getting yelled at by a drill sergeant.
Then came the 5 a.m. wakeup calls, grueling workouts and bad food. But the most challenging aspect was the Georgia heat, with temperatures sometimes over 100 degrees. Dressler entered training weighing 180 pounds and came home at 160.
Dressler also had to wear a mask during drills due to COVID-19, even when completing a 12-mile run.
“Ugh … not … not fun,” Dressler said when asked to describe that run. “It was like having a wet paper bag over my face. Every two to three hours there was an ice truck that would drive up, and we’d dunk our arms to avoid heat stroke.
“It was obviously really different than home life and a regular summer. But it was actually pretty cool for the most part. Got to do a lot of new things.”
Dressler enjoyed learning about infantry combat and rifle skills, among other things. But he also was glad to meet people from different backgrounds and get to know them.
As admittedly quiet person, Dressler said he’s become a much better communicator after going through basic training.
“When I got off the plane in Harrisburg, the first people I saw were my little sister and my mom,” said Dressler, who completed basic training in August but had to stay for an extra week to quarantine. “Seeing them for the first time in months, I felt like I changed a lot but they were the same people I remember.
“I used to not talk to a lot of people, but now I can hold a conversation. Learning about 120 guys in my company and becoming friends with them in a few months helped me a lot.”
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Tommy Dressler poses with his sisters, Abby (left) and Ashley (right) at Harrisburg International Airport after returning home from basic training. (Photo: Matt Allibone, York Daily Record)
Dressler plans to major in political science and will be required to spend at least six years in the Army after he graduates as a second lieutenant. He’s interested in working in the intelligence community later in his life.
He also won’t be the only member of his immediate family serving in the military. His older sister, Ashley, is a nursing student at York College and has enlisted in the National Guard as a combat medic. She’ll be doing basic training next summer and will actually outrank her brother, initially.
Ed Dressler, whose father also served in the Army, said he’s proud of his children but understands their jobs will not be easy.
“It’s a great chance to advance their careers and make them better people, but as a parent you always sweat when you don’t know if they’re going to be called to duty,” he said, while adding he knows his kids can’t be deployed while in school. “With the way the world is, there is a chance they will at some point be in harm’s way. So that’s concerning, but the training they receive is top-notch and they both take it seriously.
Added Tommy: “Everyone in the military could be in harm’s way, but it’s part of the job. You have to understand that, push through it and not be afraid.”
Getting better on the mat
Spring Grove’s Tommy Dressler has 82 career wins entering his senior season. He’s committed to Division I Lock Haven. (Photo: Dan Rainville, The Evening Sun)
Dressler first got into wrestling at the age of 7, when he and his father had a conversation with a group of Spring Grove wrestlers at Genova’s Pizza after leaving a youth football practice.
He said he was committed and focused on the sport right away and quickly found success with local youth and club teams. He wrestled varsity as a freshman and qualified for states as a sophomore.
This past season, he went 32-7 and reached the District 3 Class 3A title match at 170 pounds, but had to forfeit due to injury to Gettysburg star Dylan Reinert. He won a match at the state tournament and came one point away from winning a second. He already has 82 career wins entering his senior season.
“He’s a mat rat,” Spring Grove head coach Tyke Conover said of Dressler. “He’s a very hard worker but not very vocal about it. He’s a normal Spring Grove wrestler with a blue-collar work ethic who puts his head down and gets the job done.
“I thought he’d be a state (medalist) last year, but he’s had a great offseason even with going to basic training. His big goal will to be a state champ, and he absolutely can accomplish that. He’s got tremendous upside.”
Most serious competitors in Pennsylvania talk about winning state championships, but few are able to achieve the goal in one of the country’s top wrestling states. However, the strides Dressler has shown since returning from basic training are evidence he could be primed for a huge senior season.
Competing at the Olympic Club Duals in State College on Sept. 12, Dressler beat three former state medalists, including 2019 state champion and Virginia Tech commit Trey Kibe from Mifflin County. Dressler had only been back from basic training for a few weeks at the time.
Dressler has since gained back the weight he lost and hopes to compete at 189 pounds this season.
“I tell people it’s like riding a bike,” said Conover about not being surprised by Dressler’s performance. “You might put it in the shed for a few months, but you learn to ride pretty quickly. Taking a mental break can sometimes be good for a high-level athlete.”
Of course, there is no guarantee that Dressler will get a chance to compete for a state title this season. The PIAA has said the 2020-21 winter season is still on schedule, but there is no guarantee that those sports — especially a high-contact one like wrestling — will take place or be completed due to the pandemic.
Dressler has dealt with that uncertainty by competing in club tournaments so that he can get in plenty of matches even if the PIAA wrestling season is altered or canceled.
He understands he has bigger things — wrestling and otherwise — waiting for him after high school.
“I’m just really hoping for a season,” Dressler said. “Even if it doesn’t happen, I’ll still be ready for the college season. I’m still going to be lifting, running and improving myself.”
Matt Allibone is a sports reporter for GameTimePA. He can be reached at 717-881-8221, email@example.com or on Twitter at @bad2theallibone.