Walking into the Fox Lane wrestling room today, there were only a handful of people that I recognized. After winning four of the last five Division 1 section titles, it’s clearly a new era for the Foxes.
“We don’t have murderer’s row,” new head coach Anthony Rodrigues said. “Some of the teams that we’ve had I think have been the greatest of all-time in Section 1. Two years ago, we had six kids in the (section) finals. Four of those kids are at Division 1 schools, and five have placed in the state. I don’t think you’re ever going to see a team like that again.”
Not only are some of the most accomplished wrestlers from Section 1 in the last decade gone, but so is the most accomplished coach in section history. Joe Amuso retired at the end of last season after 42 years in which he molded Fox Lane into one of the top programs in the area. Rodrigues has taken over after serving as Amuso’s assistant for over a decade, so there is plenty of familiarity there, but change is abundant for the Foxes.
For the first time since I’ve been covering wrestling (a modest three years), a season is starting without Fox Lane as the favorite.
“We have a lot of younger kids that don’t really understand what Fox Lane wrestling was, and who we are in the section,” junior Ben Ettlinger said. “To us who have been on the team for awhile, I think it’s kind of motivating.”
• It really was odd not seeing Amuso in the room. When I think of Section 1 wrestling, he has been the staple. There have been a handful of coaching changes around the section this season, but none of those guys were the winningest coach in section history. “It’s very, very, very, very weird without Joe,” Rodrigues said. “It’s a major adjustment. This is his spot right here (points to corner), and this is his room. This is his program. The only thing that’s going to be weirder is when we start wrestling matches. We have a thing where I would sit in the left chair, and he would sit in the right chair. I’m still sitting in the left chair – I’m not going to the right.”
• The truth is, Rodrigues was really the only man for the job when Amuso decided to retire. He’s been a part of this program for longer than anyone except Amuso, which has made for a pretty smooth transition. “It feels a little different,” senior Tom Grippi said. “But I’ve been with A-Rod for nine or 10 years.”
• The practice routine is pretty much identical to what Amuso did. As Rodrigues put it, “I’m not reinventing the wheel.” But a few of the wrestlers did note subtle differences when it comes to technique. “Right now, it’s kind of hard to tell because it’s only a week into the season, but I think (Rodrigues) is going to be a little more modern,” Ettlinger said. “Coach Amuso would show some older stuff, but now that we have (assistant coach Dave) Colagiovanni in the room, I think it’s going to be a little more up-paced.”
• The Foxes return three of their eight section-place finishers from last season, but lose all three of their guys who placed at the state level – Sam Speno, Danny Ventura and Matt Pasqualini. The only returning section champ for Fox Lane is Grippi. “It’s a lot different for me,” Grippi said. “They were all my trainer partners over the last few years, so I just have to be a bigger part of the team. Last year I was just a little piece, and now this year I’m a captain and I have to be a bigger leader in the room.”
• Grippi was not shy about his expectations. He’ll be regarded as one of the top wrestlers in the section this season, but he wants to become of the best in the state. “State championship is my goal this year,” he said. “It would be nice to place in the state, but state champ is what I’m going for. It’s my senior season – my last year – so I’m going to do whatever I have to do to get it done.”
• Grippi sounded like he’s leaning towards wrestling at 145 pounds this year. “I certified for 145,” he said. “I think I’m going 152 for the first half, then go down to 147 (with the two-pound leeway). Also depending state-wise – whichever (class) has less competition; I’m probably going to go there.”
• After Grippi, Ettlinger and fellow junior Brandon Fay are the other returning wrestlers who placed at sectionals last season. Ettlinger is Grippi’s new training partner in the room, and is a guy that both Rodrigues and Grippi spoke very highly of. He said he expects to wrestle at 126 pounds this season. “I was going to a club down on Long Island, and I’ve been training and lifting to stay in shape,” Ettlinger said. “I definitely feel like I’m better than I was last year.”
• Fay may be Fox Lane’s best shot at a section title outside of Grippi. He’s staying at 99 pounds after placing there last season, which could bode well. Most guys who wrestle in that weight class one year make a jump the next, so staying put should work in Fay’s benefit. It worked out well for New Rochelle’s Nick Barbaria last season, who went onto place at the state level. “I think this year he could really step up and do well,” Ettlinger said. “If he goes (99) again, there’s not really many names I think could think of that are really going to contend with him for a title.”
• Another guy to watch out for is sophomore Frank Surace. He had a very strong season and barely missed out on placing in a tough weight class. “Frank lost in the placing round last year at sections, and depending on which weight he goes, I think he can do well,” Grippi said.
• In total, the Foxes return seven of their 16 sectional qualifiers from last season. The guys we haven’t mentioned yet are seniors Chris Manjuck and Ari Faust, and freshman Scott Rodrigues (Anthony’s son).
• The young Rodrigues got his first taste of varsity wrestling last season as an eighth-grader, and as most of you know, he has a tremendous wrestling pedigree. His brother Steven Rodrigues was a state champ and is currently wrestling for the University of Illinois, where he is 18-3 on the season. Anthony spoke about the burden of expectations on Scott. “It’s hard for him,” Anthony said. “He’s following Steven, and it’s not easy. It’s hard for him from both angles. His father is the head coach, and his brother was one of the all-time greatest wrestlers (in Section 1). He’s different from Steven. Scott is 130 pounds as a freshman. Steven was a senior at 130 pounds. I think his success could come further down the line, because how many freshman 120 or 126 pounders go to states?”
• Scott Rodrigues is the leading man from a loaded freshmen class. Fox Lane has 17 in the room at the moment, so the future looks bright. “There’s a bunch of kids who I think have potential, especially some of the freshman kids,” A-Rod said. “There’s five or six freshmen who, if they do the right thing, I think they’re going to be really good wrestlers down the line. Are they going to be Speno and Steven? Maybe not, but we’ll see. That’s the goal.”
• The Foxes also have a seventh-grader in the room who Rodrigues says is “going to be something special down the line.” Matt Grippi (Tom’s brother) is already expected to fill the 106-pound spot in the lineup. Tom calls his younger brother “a freak of nature.”
• While Rodrigues was clear about the fact that this is a very young group and that expectations are scaled back, he also noted that this group is following in the footsteps of the big names that have come before them – meaning they’ve committed year round and put in the hard work. “A whole bunch of these kids have been working all summer – it’s not like we just show up in November,” he said. “There are 10 or 12 kids that have worked out five days a week from about June 1 on.”
• I’ll give the final word to Grippi, who said that his expectations for the team haven’t changed. I’ll say this – there’s no way I can see the Foxes surpassing either North Rockland or Yorktown to get into the top two (barring any crazy injuries), but I think they’ll be in that 3-10 mix with a handful of other teams. Don’t expect this group to completely fall off of the map. “I still think we can win the section this year,” Grippi said. “That’s obviously the biggest goal we’re going to have. We have some younger kids in the room, and they can do well. We’ve been working really hard lately.”