For my the second straight practice visit on Monday, the room I walked into was missing a very familiar voice. Jim Guccione has been the vocal presence of New Rochelle wrestling for decades, but this is Eddie Ortiz’s team now.
“It’s definitely strange,” Ortiz said. “Every year that I’ve been involved with this sport, he’s been a part of it. At the same time, it’s exciting to start taking on my responsibility and let the buck stop with me. I have to be on top of things, and I’ve got to get these guys prepared. I’m starting to figure out how valuable he was, and how well he ran this program with all of the logistics.”
After wrestling for Guccione in his high school years, Ortiz joined on as an assistant coach five years ago. He quickly became Guccione’s top assistant and handpicked successor, so this is exactly what he’s been groomed for.
There is a sense of normalcy and comfort because Guccione has been easing Ortiz into the role for a few years now.
“It’s a different feel not to have Gooch in there being macho and stuff like that, but Eddie has been doing it for a few years, working his way into the team,” junior Nick Barbaria said. “It’s a different feel, but it’s still Eddie teaching technique.”
• The main responsibility that Guccione had given Ortiz in recent seasons was being the teacher in the room. Even last season when I visited, it was Ortiz who was rolling around on the mats instructing while Guccione oversaw and served more as a team manager. “My role has been mostly with the wrestling for the last five years. That’s what I feel my strength is – teaching wrestling,” Ortiz said. “I get very prepared, and ultimately, I want to be in charge of every aspect of that. Really for me, it’s going to be about delegating to some of my assistant coaches.”
• Ortiz has a handful of former Huguenot wrestlers helping out in the room, including Eric Fama and A.J. Barbaria. Guccione also still works at the high school, so there is a support system in place. I have a feeling we’ll still see him from time to time throughout the season. “He’s still around – he’s still in the building – so he’s always available for any questions that I have,” Ortiz said. “He’s really been great in helping me ease into the process and get a grip on things.”
• One thing that kids talked about Guccione having was an intense presence, but Ortiz certainly seems to have some of that in him. He oozes passion for the sport. “When we go in conditioning and go live, he wants 100 percent – just like Gooch,” Barbaria said. “I guess Gooch taught him that from having him on the team for however many years.”
• While the transition from Guccione to Ortiz has been going smoothly, there are some serious question marks surrounding the team after losing a large senior class. Of the 15 sectional qualifiers that New Ro had last season, only six return. “It’s definitely going to be a challenging year,” Ortiz said. “We’ve got to develop the program and get more guys involved. Although we’re pretty inexperienced up and down the lineup, we do have some guys on the team that have been in the room for a few years. They’ve putting a lot of work in during the offseason. They don’t necessarily have that varsity match experience, which is an area where they’re going to have to step up – and step up quick. But I think these guys are more than capable of jumping in and picking up the slack from what we’ve lost.”
• Barbaria is a returning section champ and state-place finisher, so he is now indisputably the man in the room. Among the key guys that are graduated are former state qualifiers Aaron Butler and Tyler Lilly, and Nick’s older brother, A.J. “Usually in the beginning of practice, I’ll be going to the older guys and asking them for help,” Barbaria said. “It’s kind of different this year that the younger guys are coming up to me.”
• After placing in the section as a freshman, Barbaria stayed at 99 pounds last season and won a section title. Going onto place at states was a huge confidence builder for him, and he attacked the offseason with vigor. “I knew coming back from Albany that I was going to be the kid that everyone wants to beat, so I went to all of the tournaments,” he said. “I went to the Super 32, went 2-2, and it was a fun tournament; a good experience. Went to the Journeymen Classic in Niskayuna and went 3-1. I lost to a kid that I lost to at states, but I also beat a kid that placed at states. I’ve also been going to wrestling clubs and clinics. I went to Worthy 30 with (U.S. wrestler) Jordan Burroughs, which was a fun experience – having him and Darrion Caldwell just teaching incredible stuff. All of the training comes together. When you go in the room to start the season, all of that stuff molds into a big season.”
• Barbaria plans on wrestling at 106 pounds this season, where he should be the favorite. He says his goal is, “nothing short of being in the state finals. I’m confident in the division, league, section, placing at states – those are all things that I’ve accomplished and goals that I’ve met. My new goal is to be in the state finals, because if I’m in the state finals, I’m definitely going to win. I just need to be there.”
• The only other returning wrestler for the Huguenots who placed at sectionals is 285-pounder Justin Douglas. The senior was the Cinderella story at the sectionals last season, upsetting tourney favorite Sean Barry of Hen Hud in the quarters on his way to a second-place finish. Douglas lost in the finals to Yorktown’ David Varian in overtime, but he sent shock waves through the section after never wrestling in his life before last season. Picking up the sport as quickly as Douglas did tells you that he’s as talented and athletically gifted as any super heavyweight in the section. “We’ve got to get his offense going a little more, but having accomplished what he did last year in such a short amount of time says a lot,” Ortiz said. “He didn’t have a win in his first seven or eight matches. With him, it’s a confidence thing… I think he can compete with anybody.”
• Douglas plays on the New Rochelle football team, which is currently preparing for the Class AA state championship game. As a result, he hasn’t been able to practice with the wrestling team recently, but Ortiz said he was committed during the offseason. “In the spring, he was in here just about working out a couple of times a week – especially when (former New York state champ) Malcolm (Allen) was around,” Ortiz said. “Once he got engrossed in the football, New Rochelle football demands a lot of your time – probably more than any other sport. But he’ll be fine. He’s a great athlete, he’s excited about the season, and every time I see him, he’s popping his head in the room. You could tell, he’s itching to come back and try to right the wrong of the way that finals ended up last year. I think he thought he could have wrestled better.”
• After Barbaria and Douglas, the resumes of the guys in the room fall off a bit. Two guys that Ortiz seems to be looking for big things out of are the Wallace brothers, Lamont and Jordan. Jordan qualified for sectionals last season as a seventh grader behind Barbaria at 99 pounds, while Lamont was one of New Ro’s top JV wrestlers. Jordan could stay at 99 this season, while Lamont expects to wrestle at 120. Both are seem to have considerable upside. “It’s really, really different. My mindset this year is so much better,” Lamont said of now being one of the go-to guys in the room “Now I feel like I know more – especially after the summer. I really worked to show coach that I improved.”
• Lamont has been in a tough spot in recent seasons. While Ortiz said that he would have been a regular in most varsity lineups, he’s been suck behind some of the Huguenots’ top wrestlers for the past few years. Lamont said that he went to camp at Cornell this summer to prepare knowing that a spot in the lineup would finally be his this season, and talked about the respect that he has for the guys who were in front of him. “A few of the wrestlers that I really admired were Hunter Jones two years ago and AJ Barbaria,” he said. “Just watching them do hard work really inspired me. Now that they’re leaving, someone has to take their place.”
• With the team being as loaded as it was and finishing in the top three at sectionals for the past two seasons, Ortiz says that many guys were in the same position as Lamont Wallace – good enough to compete, but without a spot to do so. Now is their time to shine. “Some of these guys are going to have to step up,” Ortiz said. “They’ve been behind some studs the last few years, so they’ve been getting great work and learning from the guys who were having success. Hopefully, they can translate that to the actual varsity mat.”
• Along with Barbaria, Douglas and the younger Wallace, New Ro’s other returning sectional qualifiers are Santiago Forero, Demetrius Rodrigues and Kurt Schwartz. Ortiz calls them all “tough kids” who will be key parts of the lineup this season. Rodrigues, who is Lilly’s half brother, is also still with the football team.
• With a junior class led by Barbaria and some solid numbers in terms of the underclassmen, Ortiz talked about building the program back up quickly. Duplicating the success of the past two seasons will be difficult this year, but the thought is that the Huguenots aren’t far off. “Every single kid is really motivated, and we have a lot of potential,” Barbaria said. “But we’re very young, too, so this is really a rebuilding year. Next year, we’re going to make a lot of noise. This year, we have to watch the technique and stay into it. It’s like a two-year program almost.”
• Ortiz is toning down expectations by focusing on a one day at the time approach. There is a lot of teaching to be done, which has him excited about the task at hand. At 27 years old, he’s one of the youngest coaches in the section, so expect him to be around for awhile. “There’s a lot of energy in the room, so we’ll see how it goes,” he said. “I think we’ll definitely be tougher in tournaments because in a few weight classes we have some areas where we’re pretty thin, but we’ll go with what we’ve got.”