By Betsy Veysman
Hofstra, the 24th ranked team in the country in the latest USA Today/Division I Coaches Poll, is off to an 8-0 start, including victories last week over American and CAA squads Old Dominion, George Mason and Boston. Dating back to last year, the Pride wrestlers have won 13 duals in a row.
This weekend, Hofstra puts that unbeaten streak on the line against two tough foes, Rutgers on the road and Pennsylvania at the Mack Sports Complex.
“We’ll be facing two very good teams,” said head coach Rob Anspach. “We know that in this sport everything is about March. But you don’t do well in March if you don’t really challenge yourself during the season. Rutgers had a great year last year with close to 20 dual wins and they have some very good individuals. Penn has a returning All-American at 141 and a highly ranked 197 in Micah Burak. So we will definitely be challenged. We need to continue to do the things we’ve been doing like dictating the pace and winning hand fighting battles and if we do, we should be able to come away with two more wins.”
One of the bouts Anspach is looking forward to this weekend is at 165 pounds where senior PJ Gillespie will face ninth ranked Scott Winston of the Scarlet Knights. Gillespie, a returning All-American from nearby Long Beach High School, sports a 19-5 record and some strong placements in tournaments this year – first at the Binghamton Open, second at the Las Vegas Invitational and fourth at the Southern Scuffle. Four of his five losses have come in his last 9 matches, however.
“PJ started off the year really well but hit a rough spot at the Scuffle and the Drexel dual,” Anspach said. “Last weekend I was much happier with his performance. He even dominated almost the entire match that he lost. We just want him to use all of his tools. We rely on him to score bonus points in close duals and when he’s offensive minded, he looks great.”
The captain finished on the podium last year at the NCAAs in Philadelphia after entering the tournament unseeded. Currently ranked #19, he may have to take a similar path this March.
“Wherever he winds up, even if he is unseeded again, PJ is capable of winning those matches at NCAAs. His road may be a little tougher than we hoped, but he is certainly capable of placing high this year.”
Gillespie is one of the team leaders fueling the Pride this campaign, in addition to junior Steve Bonanno and senior Ben Clymer.
Bonanno has consistently gotten the team off on the right foot. The Long Island product has gone 20-5 overall, including finishes of third and sixth at the Las Vegas Invitational and the Southern Scuffle, respectively. In addition, he has racked up an 8-0 record in duals, including six bonus point wins.
“I’ve been really impresssed with Steve,” Anspach said. “He’s been our most consistent wrestler. We’ve been able to start at 125 in all but one dual and he gets things going the right way. It’s really nice to start off the dual 4-0 or 5-0.”
Anspach also added that Bonanno is a top student, with a grade point average around 3.8 in International Business.
“You don’t find too many guys like Steve,” he said. “He’s outstanding. You never worry about him academically or in anything else. He’s always doing the right things.”
Clymer, a two-time NCAA qualifier, has been competitive throughout his career. However, the nation’s 11th ranked grappler at 184 pounds has raised his game, according to Anspach, to the tune of a 20-4 record.
“Ben has picked up his point scoring to the level he is capable of,” the coach said. “He’s very strong and long and hard to score on, but he relied too much on his defense. He’s had a lot of 2-1, 3-2 matches against good opponents in the past. Now he’s working really hard on his feet and starting to put some distance between him and the guys he’s wrestling. He’s also been working hard on top and has been able to ride some of the best in the country.”
Anspach pointed to Clymer’s fourth placing showing at the Southern Scuffle as a turning point. The Pennsylvania native lost in the first round to Clarence Neely of Missouri, but rebounded to win six straight bouts, including victories over Jon Fausey (who eliminated Clymer from last year’s Scuffle), Luke Rebertus (who knocked Clymer out of the NCAA tournament in 2011) and Neely.
While Bonanno, Gillespie and Clymer have starred, any good dual team needs contributions throughout the lineup, and Hofstra has had solid performances from a number of wrestlers.
133: Lou Ruggirello was a nationally ranked wrestler throughout his four years in Hempstead and his graduation in 2011 left the 133-pound slot vacant. However, Anspach has been pleased with his replacement.
“133 has been a win and often a pin for us for several years with Lou,” the coach said. “But Jamie Franco might be the biggest surprise on the team. He has gone out and done a great job for us.” The Monroe, New York native is 14-8 in 2011-12.
141: Luke Vaith has been competitive all year (14-7) and is waiting for a breakthrough victory.
“Luke isn’t getting the recognition he deserves,” Anspach said. “He’s very strong and talented. The problem is that he is losing to very good kids in tight ones. He was beating [5th ranked] Jake Sueflohn of Nebraska the whole match and gave up a very late takedown. He just had a good win against Justin LaValle from Old Dominion, who had beaten him at the Scuffle. I’m hoping he can turn the corner and win some of these close ones. He definitely belongs at nationals.”
149: Following Vaith in the lineup is 149-pounder Justin Accordino, who has taken a difficult path back onto the mat for the Pride.
“Justin suffered two torn ACLs, in back to back years. Both times it was in the first half of the season,” Anspach said. “After the first one he put in an intense, long rehab and he was just getting the rust knocked off when it happened again. You don’t know how a kid will react to that, but Justin rehabbed again and came back stronger. His body isn’t fully where his mind is yet wrestling wise, but we’re starting to see him getting back to the wrestler he was. If he can keep it going, he will be good come March.”
285: Anspach also mentioned the efforts of heavyweight Paul Snyder, last season’s CAA champion, who has registered a 14-7 mark.
“Paul has been working hard on his offense and his handfighting. He’s run into some guys in the conference who weren’t here last year in [19th ranked] Kyle Frey and [12th ranked] Nick Gwiazdowski. He’ll have to beat them to get back to the national tournament.”
174: The head coach believes that recent CAA Rookie of the Week Jermaine John has made significant strides since the beginning of the campaign.
“Jermaine is coming along nicely,” he added. “He had a great match with Te Edwards from ODU last week. [10th ranked Edwards won 7-6]. Jermaine is strong, quick and athletic. He has all the tools; he just needs more confidence. He needs to get that one win that triggers him to the next level.”
The next level is where the new, young coaching staff hopes to get Hofstra as a team.
While Anspach is in his first season as the head coach, he has been around the Hofstra program for most of the past 13 years, first as a student-athlete and then as a member of the staff. In addition to second-year coach Zach Tanelli, Anspach added a pair of recent All-Americans, Gregor Gillespie and Dan Vallimont, before this campaign began.
“They are all young and bring great enthusiasm,” Anspach said. “We only have 22 guys in the room, so having coaches that wrestle with the guys every day really makes a difference. They all come from very successful programs and have great minds for wrestling. I think it’s been a good formula so far.”
Anspach acknowledged that ultimately success is judged in March and he believes he knows what it would look like for the Pride.
“We want to win our conference championship, which we’ve done 10 out of the last 11 years. Binghamton has a really good team as does Old Dominion, but we feel like we’re the favorites,” he said. “When we get to nationals, we believe we have the potential for a lot of our guys to place. From my perspective, three or four All-Americans would be a great success.”
*Rankings are from theopenmat.com