There are tough opponents in sport. But none of them, all would agree, are as tough as Mother Nature when she gets serious.

From Sept. 6-9 in and around the Binghamton area of New York, she got serious … very serious.

The area saw at least 20,000 residents ordered to evacuate as the Susquehanna River crested at over 25 feet (10-feet above flood stage) as the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee dropped rain across the Northeast. Major highways were closed and regions flooded -- again -- still trying to recover from Tropical Storm Irene. Local officials called it the worst flood in Binghamton since retaining walls had been built 70 years ago.

“The situation is dire,” Binghamton Mayor Matt Ryan told The Associated Press. “It’s the worst flooding in the history of Binghamton at least since the flood walls were built in the 1930s and ‘40s.”

The damage was estimated at $1 billion in the state of New York.

Almost 2,000 of those evacuees found refuge at Binghamton’s Events Center and West Gym. Pat Popolizio’s wrestlers were part of a campus-wide response, giving up their ‘home-away-from-home’ for 16 days as the school facilities were converted to Red Cross shelters for the displaced.

“I’ve never seen anything remotely close to this,” Popolizio said, who, ironically, interviewed for the Bearcat head coaching position in 2006 during another major flood in the area. “What you see on the news versus really being there, it’s not even close to being the same. This [flood] was a little more severe [than 2006].”

Binghamton school officials sent out a number of warning and preparatory emails and texts to faculty, staff and students as the possibility of adverse conditions approached.

Bearcat wrestlers helped close one emergency shelter and helped displaced individuals and families with transportation to a new shelter. They also loaded and unloaded donations before going out into neighborhoods in search of others in need. Disasters such as this require anything and everything in regards to a unified relief effort.

The clean-up is on-going as many in the community are slowly picking up the pieces.

I think theres a new appreciation of having something as simple as a wrestling room to call their own. And being involved in something like this, being hands-on in helping people, it can really change the way you look at things.
-- Binghamton coach Pat Popolizio

“There was one guy who worked on campus who lost everything,” Popolizio said. “I was at his house on a Sunday [Sept. 25] helping him carry out stuff. You see old photos; everything the guy had was ruined. It’s a tough deal when you are helping someone who is trying to salvage anything he can. When someone starts crying what can you really say? It’s a real eye-opener when something like this happens.”

Junior Dan Riggi and freshman Joe Bonaldi had no trouble lending a helping hand.

“It was important for us to help out because there is a lot to be done and as a unit we had a lot of manpower and a lot of hands to help out those who needed it,” Riggi said. “The people of Binghamton are our fans as well so it’s a way to say thank you for supporting us by supporting them when they need it most.”

“It was awful to see how many people were left without homes,” Bonaldi added. “Seeing that gave all of us even more incentive to help out in any way possible.”

Members of the wrestling team, as things slowly get back to normal, continue to help in the community.

“I think there’s a new appreciation of having something as simple as a wrestling room to call their own,” Popolizio said, whose staff includes first-year assistants Frank Beasley and Jason Borshoff. “And being involved in something like this, being hands-on in helping people, it can really change the way you look at things.”

Wrestlers were not the only Bearcat student-athletes to lend a helping hand.

Members of the baseball team helped one family in need, getting rid of damaged sheet-rock, ripping up and removing flooring, getting rid of damaged insulation, hauling out appliances, and anything else that needed removing. The team, according to the homeowner, “did in four hours what would have taken three months for his family to do.”

Bijon Mangouri’s family was directly impacted.

“The flood destroyed my aunt’s and uncle’s home,” Mangouri said. “Many families in Conklin [near the Susquehanna River] were going to lose their homes so I searched for flood relief efforts in the area and told the coordinator that our team was available to help out. The relief we gave certainly didn’t turn anyone’s life around but the families were very grateful.”

Binghamton's wrestling squad hosts George Mason on Nov. 12 to open the 2011-12 campaign. Among those in attendance may be a fan or two who spent a handful of days on a cot in the very same venue.