The North Rockland wrestling program has been on an upward trend in recent seasons, which has elevated its status around Section 1 and brought on lofty expectations. But after years of gradually climbing up the standings at sectionals, the belief is that the time has finally come for the Red Raiders to end the season on top.
“All of the kids that have been wrestling at North Rockland leading up to us have been trying to get that section title,” junior Matt Caputo said. “They just haven’t been able to get it, so we feel like we have all of their weight on our shoulders. We have to get it for them.”
The Red Raiders seemingly have it all – depth, experience, talent – which has most (myself including) pegging them as the preseason favorite in Division 1. After finishing second to Fox Lane last season by just a few points, a title looks like theirs for the taking. If everything falls into place, they’ll be very difficult to beat, but managing those expectations and staying focused will be the key.
“I think that’s one of the hardest things as a coach is really keeping a kid motivated,” first-year coach Jeff Swick said. “What you did last year doesn’t really mean anything this year. If you’re a preseason favorite as a team or an individual, you’re really only as good as your next match. We have to constantly instill that.”
• Swick has big shoes to fill after taking over for Andy Guccione – a coach that had built up a stellar reputation around the section. Swick was promoted after serving as the JV coach when Guccione left to take the AD job at Suffern. “Anytime you’re stepping into a program where the coach that preceded you was the Section 1 coach of the year, it’s not an easy spot,” Swick said. “The expectations are high, so again, there’s pressure there. But at the same time, that’s what kind of focuses me and keeps me motivated to realize I can’t let the team down. I’ve got to give them every opportunity to win.”
• When I asked Caputo and senior Jake DiMarsico to describe Swick, they gave the same answer in unison: “Intensity.” Guccione had a relatively calm demeanor with the team, but Swick seems a bit more lively. His personality really seems to be fitting in well with the team. It probably helps that he has been around the program for awhile, so he’s familiar with all of the kids. “It’s a lot different,” Caputo said. “Practices are shorter, but harder. There’s no stopping; there’s no going back for kids who just started. It’s only moving forward. The biggest difference is the intensity in the room – by far. In your face, always going live and going hard. You’re probably losing four or five pounds every practice.”
• Here’s Swick on his coaching style. He’s all about outworking and outlasting your opponent: “When I wrestled, I wasn’t the most technical wrestler. I tend to focus more on wearing the guy down, beating him in the third period – the idea that, if you’re on bottom, he can’t hold you down.”
• Out of the eight wrestlers who placed at sectionals for North Rockland last season, six are back. The Red Raiders sent three wrestlers to states, and return two of them in DiMarsico and Caputo. The big loss is reigning Rockland wrestler of the year, Mike Caputo – Matt’s older brother. He was the only wrestler from the county who placed at states last season. “I’ve been wrestling with Mike since second grade in the mat club,” Matt said of Mike, who is currently wrestling at my alma mater, Hofstra University. “It’s different with him not being in the house, lifting weights with me, training with me… It made me mature a lot. I’m the only kid in the house now.”
• Matt is starting to look a lot like his brother. It was clear that the younger Caputo added some strength in the offseason, and based on what I saw at practice, he’s maintained his quickness. He said he expects to compete at 138 pounds this season. “I’ve been wrestling a lot with Apex in Jersey, doing a lot of travel – going across the country and trying to get my skills better,” he said. “I tried to improve my faults.”
• Although Caputo qualified for states last season, he’s run into hard luck throughout his career in his quest for a section title. Without being sure of who else will be wrestling at 138 this season, I have to think that this may be the year he finally wins one. Last year, he ran into the best wrestler in the section not named Realbuto in the finals. “It definitely hurts a little bit when you know you’re up there with your talent, but you run into tough kids,” he said. “I ran into (Brewster’s Mike) Parise my eighth grade year, my ninth grade year I had (Fox Lane’s Sam) Speno and (Suffern’s Asher) Kramer, and last year I had Speno. I really want that section title, but I know I can do more than that this year.”
• The lone returning section champ for North Rockland is DiMarsico, who upset his nemesis Adit Thakur in overtime of the section finals after losing to him a couple of times during the regular season. DiMarsico is a remarkable turnaround story, as he failed to even qualify for sectionals the previous season and didn’t start wrestling until relatively late in life. “I started in sixth grade because of Matt,” he said. “He was the first person to tell me, and I did mat club a little bit. I took off my seventh grade year – I wasn’t feeling it – but I went back to modified in eighth grade, and by ninth grade, I was up on varsity.”
• DiMarsico attributed the reversal of his fortunes to a change in his mindset. He had to grow up a little bit and start putting in the necessary work to succeed. The changes were evident, as he was probably the most vocal presence in the room today. “Training in the offseason, you can’t slack off in practice, you can’t joke around,” he said of the changes that he made. “It has to be full-tilt all of the time.”
• DiMarsico spoke about having a much different mindset going into this season. Last year, he caught some guys off guard because his name wasn’t really on the map, but that won’t be the case this time around. He expects to wrestle at 132 pounds, and spoke about doing a lot of work to improve his offense from his feet. “A lot of people will be hunting for me,” he said. “I have a title to defend.”
• Along with Caputo and DiMarsico, I believe that the Red Raiders have one more very strong section title contender. Sophomore Blaise Benderoth has been considered one of the top wrestlers in the county since his eighth grade season, but he’s come up just short in his previous two section final appearances. He’s expected to wrestle at 120 pounds this season, and will probably be viewed as the favorite there. “Blaise Benderoth is a two-time finalist, and he came up in both to (Somers’ Dylan) Realbuto a point short (two years ago) and to Parise a point short last year,” Swick said. “He definitely has a chip on his shoulder, and he’s been working really hard in the offseason. He’s a guy that I expect big things from.
• Swick also mentioned senior Troy Feniger as a guy who he believes will be in the section title conversation. Last season, Feniger took fourth in arguably the deepest weight class in the section. “Troy Feniger is a guy also who has always been caught in these weight classes where, like last year at 113, you had Realbuto, (Pearl River’s John) Muldoon and (Ossining’s Alex) Delacruz,” Swick said. “He finished fourth in that weight class, but it was a very, very deep weight class. He’s another guy who, even though he hasn’t made the finals, he’s always been right there.”
• With Feniger expected to wrestle at 126 pounds this season, Swick will have his best pound-for-pound wrestlers lined up consecutively, which could be a demoralizing stretch for opponents. Benderoth, Feniger, DiMarsico and Caputo (in that order) should form a black hole in dual meet formats. “We’re going to try to set it up where that’s murderer’s row,” Swick said. “We’re going to go after their better guys, and they’re not really going to be able to avoid us. They can’t go up and down, because we’re going to pretty much have those weights locked up.”
• While the four guys that we’ve talked about are the lead dogs for the Red Raiders, it’s the depth of this team that I think will give them a slight edge over the likes of a team like Yorktown. Junior Conner Reigotti finished the season strong last year at 285 pounds, taking fourth in the section. Swick seemed to think that he’s really starting to figure things out. “The big boys roll around and push, and physically, he’s much stronger than he was last year,” Swick said. “His body is changing a little bit. He still weighs the same – about 285 – but his body is changing, so I think he’s going to be a bigger threat than he was last year when he was able to finish fourth.”
• The list goes on. Along with the five guys that we’ve already mentioned, sophomore Derek DiMarsico (Jake’s younger brother) also placed at sectionals last season, while others such as Nick Didio and Mike D’Agostino qualified. Didio is a guy that I always remember Guccione being high on. He’s got a lot of physical talent. “The way he ended his season last year definitely was a motivator for him,” Swick said of Didio, who was a win away from placing. “He was right there and just came up a little short. You’ve got the pain of discipline and the pain of regret, so he’s certainly looking to do big things.”
• It’s also worth noting that North Rockland’s JV team won a section title last season, led by Swick. He expects a few of those guys to come up and fill some of the lightweight spots as guys like Benderoth and Feniger move up in weight classes. “I’ve got a lightweight in Alex DeAngelo who was a JV section champ last year,” Swick said. “Marlon Borge is another guy who put a lot of work in during the offseason. They’re yet to be tested at the varsity level, but I think they’re ready to compete.”