There’s a buzz surrounding the Yorktown wrestling team that has never existed in the program’s history. It was evident from the moment that I walked in on Wednesday, and the optimism was just oozing out of the key guys who I had the opportunity to speak with.
For the first time ever, the Huskers are considered to be one of the favorites for section title in Division 1. They have entered unchartered territory, indeed.
“Everyone I’ve been talking to this year says that whatever you guys do this year in the section and in the state as a team, its going affect the program forever,” senior David Varian said. “We’re going to be the team that’s looked up at for years to come. Everyone is going to want to try to be like us, so we’re going to set that bar high.”
Yorktown brings back all six of its wrestlers that qualified for sectionals last season – five of which placed, four of which made the finals and two of which won titles. There are four guys who I could make legitimate arguments for as section title favorites, which has the Huskers thinking big.
“It’s a change,” senior Steven Sabella said of the high expectations. “We started with pretty much nothing. A bunch of us came on in eighth grade to a team that would win one or two dual meets a year. But we stayed focused, every year we got more and more serious about it, and I think last year was our breaking point. Two years ago we didn’t really shine towards the end as much as we wanted to, but junior year we got guys into the finals, and a couple of guys won.”
• After having very few seniors in the lineup last season, Yorktown is loaded with them this year. Coach John Tornambe estimated that they have 15 in the room, and he credits them for taking the program to the next level. “Our whole team is seniors,” he said. “What’s special about these kids is that they didn’t see what it took to be successful – they’ve had to learn it on their own. In other programs, they’ve had success in the past, and younger kids see the older kids having success. These guys never had that opportunity. They had to discover it on their own, and they found it through work ethic and year round commitment.”
• The Cornhuskers’ Quartet (which we’ll call them until someone comes up with a better nickname) of Sabella, Varian, Joe Mastro and Thomas Murray are as potent of a foursome as you’ll find in Section 1. Sabella and Varian each won section titles last season, while Mastro and Murray were each finalists. These four have elevated the program, and have embraced the sport with open arms. They give Tornambe a group of motivated leaders that rivals any in the area. “We work hard every day,” Varian said. “Our core group of guys, senior captains, we work hard and set an example. We expect it of ourselves, so it’s not really anyone else that’s putting it on us. We’re kind of putting it on ourselves. We’ve been working for these expectations – since the day after states.”
• Tornambe wasn’t bashful about what he’s looking for out of those four. “We think we have four – not just section – we think we have four state champs, to be honest with you,” he said. “That’s not me blowing… we think we have four state champs here. And we think we have six, seven or eight kids who can be All-Section. I don’t think that’s optimistic – I think that’s realistic.”
• Last season, Yorktown leapfrogged some big name programs to finish fifth in the section, which is a big reason why the Huskers are so highly regarded entering this season. But that doesn’t mean that they’re satisfied. “We’re happy about last year, but at the same time, its still fifth place,” Sabella said. “There are still four teams in front of us. We want to win the section title this year.”
• After winning a section title at 170 pounds last season, Sabella said he will be making the big jump to 195 this year. Murray wrestled at 182 last season, and he will remain there. I had figured that Murray would jump to 195 and Sabella would wrestle at 182, but they came to a mutual agreement. “Thomas and I were both this offseason around mid-to-upper 180s, and we were like, ‘Alright, who’s going 182? And who’s going 195?’ ” Sabella said. “We talked it over, and he’s probably going to go 182 and I’m going to go 195.”
• I asked Sabella about any concerns over going up against guys who will be naturally bigger than he is, but he sounded confident. He said he currently weighs close to 190, and plans to add a few more pounds. He definitely looked like he’s bulked up a bit since last season. “That’s why I’ve been focusing just as much in the weight room as on the mat this year,” he said. “I know it’s going to be a challenge – I know I’m going to hit guys who are 185, and I know I’m going to hit guys who are 205 coming down to 195. But I’m ready for it. I feel like I’m at the point where facing a guy who is stronger than me and bigger than me, I feel like it shouldn’t be a problem. A couple of years ago, I wouldn’t know how to handle it, whereas this year I’ve really focused on drilling with bigger guys.”
• As for Yorktown’s other returning champ, Varian isn’t going anywhere. He won at 285 pounds last year, and he plans to defend his title. Last season, the big name that everyone thought was Varian’s biggest competition was Hen Hud’s Sean Barry, but Barry has graduated. I asked Varian if he has fight complacency at all knowing that he’s already won in that weight class, but he dismissed that notion. Two names that come to mind who could challenge him are Tappan Zee’s Michael Manni and Varian’s finals opponent from last year, New Rochelle’s Justin Douglas. “I know I’m going to be challenged,” Varian said. “This weight class coming back, there are a lot of guys. It’s not a two-horse race like we thought it was. Every year names pop up, so I know the target is on my back. Every wrestler is going to want a shot at me, but I’m going to want that shot back at them.”
• Varian won several big matches by a point or two last season in some low scoring affairs. He talked about being focused in the offseason on being able to rack up more points and push the pace. “Definitely my offense,” he said when I asked about where he wanted to improve. “I heard a lot about that last year from the coaches and other kids on the team. I worked all summer on that.”
• The question that will come up repeatedly when discussing Yorktown this season will be about depth. We know that the Huskers are very strong at the top, but do they have enough depth to win a section title? The team that Yorktown will be compared to all season is North Rockland, as most (myself included) consider those two teams to be the front-runners for D1 section title. The Red Raiders have more guys in their room, and return more who qualified for sectionals last year. The Huskers will need to get contributions from up-and-down their lineup to accomplish their stated goal. “Our lighter weights, we’re going to be throwing some kids in there for the first time,” Tornambe said. “They’re going to have to step up, but they have something that these guys never had, which is they see what they need to do, how they need to work and how they need to conduct themselves to be successful. Hopefully, that will help breed them to where they need to be.”
• Two guys who certainly seem capable of placing are seniors Jimmy Kaishian and Kyle Santucci. Kaishian placed last season, so he’s one of the guys that Tornambe is talking about as another potential section title contender.
• Tornambe also brought up a couple of other under-the-radar names to watch. One is senior Avik Mohan, who should fill the 220 spot. “He was hurt last year,” Tornambe said. “He was at 17 wins before he got hurt, so we’re looking for him to do something.” Another is fellow senior Alex Tapia, who should get regular opportunities for the first time this season. “He was in and out of the lineup last year behind Mastro,” Tornambe said. “When we put him in, there were signs that he could be real good. Just some inexperience and some immaturity, but he’s ready to go this year. He wrestled year round.”
• Of course, I had to ask about how Yorktown is handling this newfound attention. With all of the buzz surrounding the program, is there any concern about a feeling of entitlement before the Huskers have actually accomplished their goals? “I’ll fix that,” Tornambe said with a laugh. “We’ll take care of that. And to be honest, they’re good kids. It’s not going to be an issue.”
• Tornambe also spoke about what this group of seniors means to him personally. Based on my conversations with Sabella and Varian, and what I’ve seen out of this group in the past few seasons, this is a group that seems to do things the right way. They’re very workmen-like and respectful. “They’re a great group of kids,” he said. “I’m going to be pretty upset when these kids are gone. Not because of what they do on the mat; what they do on a daily basis. It’s all, ‘Yes, coach,’ ‘No, coach;’ they’re just good kids.”
• Lastly, Tornambe spoke about taking a different approach this year to make sure that his team is peaking at the right time. “This is the first year that we’re not coming in like gangbangers the first week of practice and killing it,” he said. “Normally, we would be going for an hour and a half already. We’re pacing ourselves to keep ourselves fresh – mentally and physically – for the end of the year. That’s our goal. I’m not going to sugarcoat it – We want to win a section title. That’s how it is.”