I have some more specific previews for states coming in the next 24 hours, but here is a feature story that I wrote for today’s paper on wrestlers who have worked hard to put once overlooked programs back on the map:
There are many programs in Section 1 that are rich in wrestling tradition, but it’s safe to say that Byram Hills isn’t one of them.
“My school is completely different,” junior Jon Errico said. “When the basketball team wins a section title, everyone freaks out. But when my name comes up on the announcements that I won a section title, everyone is like, ‘What?’ ”
The Bobcats had never had a section champ in wrestling before this season, but the standout 120-pounder proved that past performance doesn’t define the present.
Like Errico, Mamaroneck junior Youssif Hemida earned his program some rare recognition by winning a Division 1 section title two weeks ago. The 220-pounder came out of nowhere as the 13th seed to give the Tigers their first-ever section champ.
“I’m not coming from a top program, but we do have a new great coaching staff,” Hemida said. “For a school that doesn’t live for wrestling — it’s definitely not the most popular sport in the school — you’re not going to get as many kids. We maybe have 12 to 15 guys in the room.”
Coaching can be a game changer for a school that doesn’t have a strong wrestling culture.
Just as Andres Corrales has infused Mamaroneck with a new attitude, Peter Dene has helped Tappan Zee end a 15-year title drought.
Prior to current seniors Mike Manni and John Hartnett winning titles last season, the Dutchmen hadn’t had a section champ since 1998.
“It’s the most important thing,” Manni said. “Coach, over the past four years, he’s stuck with me, he’s believed in me and he’s pushed me to be my very best. When I first started, I didn’t really believe in myself.”
Putnam Valley coach Will Carano had the uneviable task of starting a new program just over a decade ago and through hard work and persistence developed a team that won its first Division 2 team title this season.
But wrestling is a sport that requires year-round commitment, and no one coach can develop champions all by himself.
“It’s nearly impossible to get your program on the map if you don’t extend outside of your wrestling room,” Carano said. “You have to make an Iowa Style (Wrestling Club) or an Askren (Wrestling Academy) part of your community.”
Club wrestling has become an intregal part of the success of many of Section 1’s best, providing top wrestlers with an opportunity to seek out the best competition and hone their skills in the offseason.
Both Errico and Hemida started as youths wrestling at various clubs. It enabled them to create new perceptions about schools that were once considered outsiders in the wrestling community.
“I feel like summer training makes winter champions,” Hemida said. “The spring, summer and fall, working so hard in the offseason and competing makes a big difference. I believe that you can only get so good in one season.”
Photo by Carucha L. Meuse/The Journal News