By Betsy Veysman
Paul Gillespie has been deeply involved in wrestling for years, as a competitor and as a coach. The National Coaches Hall of Fame member and two-time college All-American at Westchester State University in Pennsylvania, was the longtime leader of the Long Beach program and is now the head coach at Wantagh High School. The 18-0 Warriors are the top-ranked team in the New York State Sportswriters Association poll.
Coach Gillespie talked with New York Wrestling News about the top ranking, the season to date, what’s left to come and the growth of the Wantagh program.
New York Wrestling News (NYWN): Wantagh is ranked as the top dual team in the state for the first time. What does that mean to you?
Coach Gillespie: It’s nice to have for the kids and I’m delighted with the way the team is wrestling. We’ve really come together. We have a bunch of good wrestlers and good young men. But the truth is, I don’t really believe in rankings as far as championships go. You have to get it done at the end of the year.
NYWN: The 38-37 dual meet win on criteria over #2 Shenendehowa is a key reason for the #1 ranking. What were the keys to winning that dual?
Gillespie: It didn’t start out good for us. We were behind 22-0. We have a really good kid, Chris Araoz (who wrestled in the dual at 126) and when he got caught and pinned, I thought we were in trouble. But everyone hung together and we got great performances out of some of our lightweights, including Kyle Quinn at 106. They have a great kid at 113 and, as you know in wrestling duals, sometimes just not getting majored or teched or pinned is basically like a win. Holding them to a regular decision at 113 was huge for us.
NWYN: Was it a bigger win because of near misses against Shenendehowa in recent years?
Gillespie: I think so. We have been knocking on the door. Last year was a very close match, so was the year before. Shenendehowa is a great program and we feel like we’re on the upswing, getting better. We’re just hoping to keep improving. We’ll definitely wrestle them again next year.
NYWN: Why has Wantagh been on the upswing?
Gillespie: I think the way our program is going now we should be really strong for a number of years. It mostly comes down to hard work and lots of great people in the community who care about the program and are willing to help. People here are interested in wrestling and people like winners. Things are good on all levels – the Wantagh wrestling club is doing great things and Ray Handley Senior is doing an outstanding job with the kids program.
NYWN: In the revised brackets, Wantagh tied with Long Beach for third at Eastern States. How did you feel about the team’s performance?
Gillespie: We ended up third, beating Hauppauge, Longwood and some other great schools with only nine kids wrestling for us. We were only allowed to take nine because it was our first year in the tournament. The other teams around us had around 15 kids. So I think we did pretty well. I think we could make a run with a full team there next year, although I’m not sure anyone is beating Wyoming Seminary.
NYWN: Jose Rodriguez dominated his way to the 99-pound championship at Eastern States. What did you think about his tournament?
Gillespie: Jose Rodriguez is amazing. He’s just a ninth grader and I think he’s one of the best around, pound for pound. He actually beat the kids that finished first, second and third at 106 this summer. He really reminds me of Al Palacio, a three-time New York state champ and an All-American in college. He has that fire in him and he’s a great competitor. He has an outstanding work ethic and is a good student too. I certainly think he will make a run for the state title. It will take someone with great talent to beat him.
NYWN: How do you assess the performance of the rest of your team at Eastern States?
Gillespie: Our other three placers, Steve English (fifth at heavyweight), Chris Loew (sixth at 170) and Chris Araoz (seventh at 120) did well and all were capable of placing higher. I think they are all potential state placers, but they have to get through our county first and that won’t be easy. They are more than capable, but it’s a matter of how they perform when it counts.
Some other kids looked good too. Vinny Terano has been wrestling well. Dan McDevitt is a very good wrestler. They didn’t use head to head in seeding and he had beaten the two-seed James Dekrone earlier but was only seeded 10th. We’re looking for big things from him in the future.
NYWN: What’s next for Wantagh?
Gillespie: In our county there will definitely be some challenges from teams like Long Beach and MacArthur, among others. But I think we’ll be pretty tough to beat because we have good kids in all weight classes and I think that makes us a little bit of the favorite. I think with the work we put in and the types of kids we have, it’s ours to lose. I usually don’t speak that way, but these are such solid kids with great focus.
NYWN: What are your expectations for the state tournament?
Gillespie: We’re hoping to have several kids in Albany. I think it will be a great tournament that will be won by the team that steps up to the plate. There are a lot of teams that will have a bunch of kids there – teams like Shenendehowa, Longwood, Hauppauge, John Glenn, Eastport South Manor and some very good upstate teams too. I’m sure I’m leaving teams out. I would say Shenendehowa may have a bit of an edge because of some of their upperweights that are really good and Nick Kelley, who I think is one of the best wrestlers in the state as a junior.
NYWN: The top dual team receives an award in Albany as well. What would it mean to receive that award?
Gillespie: I think it would be absolutely great for the kids and the program. When you’re a successful program, you are able to get more and more people wanting to be a part of it. It only gets stronger. We want to be able to keep everything going.
NYWN: Quite a few recent Wantagh wrestlers have gone on to wrestle in college. Who are some of the notable alumni?
Gillespie: We have a few guys at Hofstra: Steve Bonanno, Matt Loew and Joe Kavanaugh, who is redshirting. Joe Barbato and Paul Liguori are at Harvard and John Greisheimer is at Edinboro.
Bonanno is having a great year and Greisheimer lost a close match in the All-American round at NCAAs last year. We take a lot of pride in all of those guys. The community in Wantagh understands that the key to everything is getting an education. A very small percentage of guys are going to the Olympic level; there aren’t too many places to compete after college. So we stress the education and those kids are great examples of that.
NYWN: Have those wrestlers stayed involved in the program?
Gillespie: When they’re home, they always stop in. With the new rules, they can’t wrestle at practice, but they talk to the kids and tell them about their experiences and college life. It’s great to have them back to tell their stories. They give our kids a lesson on what it will be like to be a college student-athlete.
NYWN: How would you sum up your time as Wantagh head coach to this point?
Gillespie: It’s really a pleasure for me to be here. It’s a new and different environment. It’s a great school district and a lot of the sports are on the championship level. The parents are so determined to see their kids succeed in sports and academics. They understand what I think is most important – that it’s all about the education.
After leaving Long Beach [High School] after a long time, I was sitting on the beach, since I’m the chief of the lifeguards. A few guys came down to see me and asked if I would come and help develop the Wantagh program and then all of a sudden the coach left for personal reasons. My wife wasn’t all for it at first because she knows the time and effort it takes, but I wouldn’t have done it without her blessing. I thought my coaching days were over, but I guess I was wrong. I’m glad to be back.
Top-seeded Wantagh returns to action on January 27-28 at the Nassau County Dual Meet championships.