While kids and coaches await the start of the high school wrestling season on May 3, locals found a way back to the mat in the meantime.
The Albany-based Journeymen Wrestling Club held its first ever Rudis New York State high school championships April 1 and 2 at Spooky Nook Sports Complex in Manheim, Pennsylvania. The club-level, folk-style tournament was run to provide kids throughout the state with a championship event, since NYSPHSAA championships are not being held in any sport this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The point man for the event was Section II Shenendehowa varsity coach Frank Popolizio, who also runs the Journeymen Club. Using a rolling entry system and paid application for the tournament, the athletes were chosen for the event by past experiences in NYSPHSAA tournaments, sectional championship experience, overall record and more.
Of the participants, 55 hailed from Western New York, including 13 of whom who placed in the event. Of those 13, three were from our local programs: Royalton-Hartland's Gavin Ciarfella (fourth place, 113 pounds), Starpoint's J.R. Leur (fifth, 99) and Grand Island's Brian Bielec (eighth, 170).
Other local participants included: Nikolas Massaro (GI, 113), Dylan Lyness (Starpoint, 120), Griffin LaPlante (Starpoint, 126), Adam Huntington (Newfane, 126), Grady Peterson (Niagara Falls, 132), Collin Coughenour (Niagara Wheatfield, 138), Ciaran Edwards (Lewiston-Porter, 152), Ryan Nugent (Newfane, 152), Jesiere Carter (NF, 152) and Jake Miller (GI/182).
Edwards thought the event was great, sharing that the COVID protocols were substantial. Parents and fans were not allowed in the competition area and athletes wore masks while they weren't competing. The competitors were also withheld from the loitering in the competition area, as they were only allowed in right before they hit the mat for their respective matches.
As far how the wrestling went, the Lew-Port senior enjoyed getting back to grappling. But he also noticed how the WNY athletes were at a disadvantage compared to those from other areas.
"It felt great to be out on the mat competing again. Most of the guys from other parts of the state have already had their competition seasons, so WNY guys were at a bit of a disadvantage from a conditioning and sharpness standpoint," said Edwards in a conversation via Twitter.
"But our coaches at Nickel City Wrestling Club did a great job getting us ready for the event. So huge shoutout to Coach Drew Hull, Coach Alex Smythe, Coach Kellen Devlin and all of the other coaches who helped us prepare for the event."
Despite wrestling four days a week with Nickel City and Niagara Falls Wrestling Club, Edwards believes that competing in a high school winter season would have prepared him even more so for the event.
"There is simply no way to replicate live tournament matches in a practice setting. You can try, but there is no way to truly get that feel until you're actually out there competing," Edwards said. "So for me, my first round match was my first competitive wrestling match in 13 months. Not optimal to be getting your first match in over a year in the first round of the state tournament."
Nickel City duals committee member Steve Hart, Starpoint's head wrestling coach, played a big role in the tournament, helping subsidize the many Nickel City wrestlers from WNY in the event with a gear package — coaches and competitors could not where school gear. To get the kids prepped for the event, Hart and the NC staff put together an eight-week camp throughout WNY.
Being able to get the kids back wrestling after so much time away, Hart was thrilled with how the tournament panned out, which he fully believes was aided by the Nickel City camp.
Hart is also thankful for how the WNY wrestling community came together with the delay of the high school season, as he cited how the masses have been important in giving local kids resources to train and compete while the spring season approaches.
"I think the opportunities that these kids were given between Nickel City providing ... a club-style camp structure and then the actual event, is gonna allow these kids to be ahead of the curve come the May 3 start date for the season, that's anticipated," said Hart, who was also in attendance of the event.
"I think the event was ran flawlessly by Frank Popolizio and the Journeymen club. The venue that it was held at was absolutely incredible, with how large it is and the hotel's right connected to the venue. Some great, high-level wrestling from every section that was represented throughout the state. And I think, overall, our area kids that represented Nickel City out there, fared pretty well. ... The training opportunities, to the event, everything that was provided to these kids is really gonna help them excel this upcoming spring season.
" ... The level of competition there, it cannot be replaced by league dual meets, anything like that. The level of competition that these kids faced at this event really gave them something of a higher-level, state tournament-type feel to it."
Hart is not alone on Nickel City's committee, with other local coaches and executives in the WNY wrestling community, including Joe Scapelliti, Jason Chase, Tom Page, Dennis Bauer and Charlie Voorhees.
Thinking of the spring, Hart also believes the local wrestling scene will be prepared because of the standards it upholds to with hygiene. Whether it's skin checks or sanitizing mats between matches, Hart feels that the sport could have been run smoothly this winter, especially seeing other sections in NYS having finished, or just began seasons, in a safe manner.
But until then, he remains hopeful that the season will be starting on time.
"I believe we have a good plan in place to return and, again, I'm optimistic that our section leaders are gonna give us the green light," Hart said. "I know it has a lot to do with the county health departments, but I'm also optimistic that the county health departments will, as well, give the green light for our kids to have a season starting in May."