By Matt Diano
If you are an avid follower of the Long Island scholastic wrestling scene, surely you already know the name Craig Vitagliano. The accolades earned by this Nassau native are sure to command your attention: three-time Nassau County Champion, the 1990 New York State Champion for Plainedge High School, four-time varsity letterman at Harvard University and University National Freestyle Champion, among others.
But perhaps you don’t know him from his competitive days on the mat. Maybe instead you know him as “The Guru” on Flowrestling, a devout student of international competition armed with one of the most extensive video libraries in the world. If you are one of the 60 kids (and growing) that belong to the Ascend Wrestling Club based out of Hicksville, you might simply know him as “Coach.” But, the question remains, who really is Craig Vitagliano?
While cognizant of all that he has accomplished in the sport in a short period of time, he much prefers to talk about the student-athletes who have brought a new sense of joy and pride into his life. Once you get him talking about his wrestlers, you should be prepared to allocate the rest of the day to that conversation; that is how passionately he feels about working with the next generation of Long Island wrestling royalty. This characteristic is seemingly contagious because when approached, his wrestlers could not say enough about how much the coach has helped them both on the mat and in life. Thus, in fitting fashion, don’t let me be the one who tells you who Craig Vitagliano is, let’s us hear it directly from the mouth of his disciples. (Excerpts, full quotes can be found at: http://ascendwrestling.com/testimonials.html).
“Every time Craig and I get together I learn something from him. He is honestly one of the best technicians I’ve ever been around. I haven’t met anyone else who cares for me and this sport as much as Craig. Not only is he a father figure to me but he’s my inspiration.”
–Mark Raghunandan (2011 NYS Runner-up, 2010 Fargo Runner-up)
“Since joining Ascend Wrestling Club and Craig Vitagliano after my sophomore year in high school everything started clicking. Before joining the club I was a pretty average wrestler with a ton of potential and no real technique. Along with my coaches at St John the Baptist I truly owe all my success to Coach Craig. He was able to take this potential and turn it into productivity. Without his desire and determination to make everyone in our room better none of us would be where we are today.”
–Jimmy Gill (2x CHSAA runner-up)
“Craig has drastically improved my wrestling, because he focuses on every little aspect and detail of technique. Craig simply watches you wrestle and in seconds is able to fine tune your every move and put forth some of the moves he knows that he thinks will best suit you.”
— Pat Skinner (2x CHSAA State Champion; 2011 NYS placewinner)
“One of the best things about Craig is he will show you moves that best fit your style. He won’t try to make you into a wrestler you’re not. All you need to do is show him you want to learn and he will do everything he possibly can for you. He is a very affable person and one of the best technicians I’ve ever met.”
–Danny McDevitt (2011 Nassau County runner-up)
“The technique that Craig shows is unmatched by any other coach that I have seen. Every single part of the move he is showing is put into specific detail; sometimes it would take him 15 minutes to go over a single move. If you look at the wrestlers that Craig has coached you can see that he has truly influenced every wrestler that goes to his club.”
–Christian Dluginski (2011 Nassau County Champion)
“Craig has not just been a coach for me, but a mentor for all different aspects that I’ve been involved with. He helped me through the recruiting process, dieting and controlling my weight, and transformed my wrestling abilities to where they are today, and I think the biggest impact that he’s had on me is that I’m now really a student of the sport.”
–Chris Perez (2x Nassau County Champion; NHSCA Senior National runner-up; current Princeton Freshman)
“Craig has made a huge impact on my life. That is what makes a true champion, the person behind the champion, the person who stuck through it with them to the end and never gave up on them, the true champion is the one who trains the champion. Craig is definitely a person in my book that I will always look up to and be thankful to forever.”
–Ryan Singh (2011 Nassau County Champion)
Such heartfelt sentiments are precisely what Vitagliano was aiming for when deciding to start the Ascend Wrestling club two years ago. When he returned to the sport circa 2004 it was not necessarily Vitagliano’s plan to form a club. However, it just happened that way. Two kids became four, then eight, then 16, and so forth. But now that the wheels have been set in motion, Craig has remained loyal to his vision of what a wrestling club should entail: a spot that not only offers student-athletes the opportunity to train 12 months a year, but also allows them to establish relationships and friendships with peers who will not only enhance them as wrestlers, but as people as well.
“Where else are you going to find the opportunity for a Mark Raghunandan to train with a Pat Skinner, Ryan Singh, or Robert Person?” Vitagliano said. “It just would not happen if not for the existence of clubs like Ascend. My goal is to expose these kids to the best workout opportunities possible. As has become the USA Wrestling motto, steel really does strengthen steel. Therefore, I do everything I can to make it happen.”
As successful as the results have been on the mat since the inception of the club, Vitagliano is very quick to point out that Ascend stands for much more than just winning matches. Instead, what he gives him the greatest satisfaction is preparing these high school students for the real world. The discipline, commitment to craft, and camaraderie that one encounters when stepping into the Ascend Wrestling room are values and attributes that extend behind wrestling. They have purpose in the outside world. Wrestling is the method by which greater qualities and traits are instilled.
From a strictly wrestling standpoint, Vitagliano, ever modest, is the first to tell you that he does not have all of the answers. He recognizes that there are certain techniques and approaches that he is not as adept at teaching. Rather than allowing this to be an obstacle, Vitagliano does whatever is required to arrange for guest clinicians to work with his developing wrestlers. Already, Ascend has welcomed former NCAA Champion Mitch “Make it Happen” Clark to teach leg riding, Long Island icon/4x NYS Champion/NCAA Champion Jesse Jantzen to teach the crab ride, and 2010 NCAA Champion/2012 Olympic hopeful, Max Askren, to give a tutorial on funk and scramble positions, to name just a few.
“Having all of these great guys come into the room is not just valuable to the high school kids; I also learn something from it,” he said. “As good a coach as I may be, I am always learning and looking to improve. My objective is to help the kids develop a full repertoire as a result of their involvement with Ascend. I don’t want them to just know how to execute moves. I want them to incorporate the cerebral elements with the physical actions. It is just as important to be a student of the sport and understand why a certain technique or strategy will work at a specific moment as it is to be able to hit the move flawlessly. Wrestling is like chess; it’s a thinking person’s game. Bringing in the best of the best just reaffirms this message.”
Vitagliano is hesitant to say too much on the growth of club training and personalized coaching, emphasizing that what’s most important is molding and changing the lives of the kids. Vitagliano wants to work with everyone and thinks that we all have a stake in helping kids to grow as wrestlers. In his own career, he cited at least a dozen names of people who cultivated him as a wrestler (coaches Terry Haise, Al Bevilacqua, Paul Gillespie Sr., John Hamilton, Ron Abbatelli, John Walter, as well as peers Brett Gould, Eddie Leonard, Tom Sinacore, just a sampling). He believes the club system is just one tool in getting the desired outcomes. And, from where he is standing, other sports (baseball, tennis, golf) have demonstrated that this nature of instruction is invaluable to facilitating the greatest amount of improvement. Supporting him in this belief is legendary wrestler/coach John Smith of Oklahoma State. In sharing a conversation he had with the former six-time World Champion, Vitagliano indicated that according to Smith, thanks to clubs, “Kids are better today than they were 20 years ago. And, regions and certain states that were once weak are now flourishing.” The club system may be new to the Empire State, but it has been around wrestling for decades. Hence, if other states have shown the effectiveness of the approach, why not embrace it?
When asked to reflect on what his time at Ascend has meant to him, Vitagliano paused before saying, “It’s made me a happier man, as well as a better husband and father to my two young girls. Professionally, I was doing quite well while working in New York City. But, you can’t put a price tag or a value on the emotions that overcome you when you see a kid like Ryan Singh make such dramatic sacrifices to achieve his dream, or when you watch as [Chris] Perez reads his acceptance letter to Princeton. You can’t make enough money to replace these feelings. And, best of all, I know there will be many awaiting me in the future.”
So who is Craig Vitagliano? He is the selfless, never tiring, enthusiastic gentleman who cares more about your success than he does his own. He is the man who will sit with you in the wrestling room till midnight so that you make weight the next morning. He is the man who may be able to teach you more about life than he will about takedowns or tilts and, he is the man who if given the chance, can make you a better wrestler than you ever thought you could be. Before our interview, I had never met Craig Vitagliano; now I consider him a man who I will go to bat for any day of the week and twice on Sundays. He’s the kind of man you’d be lucky to have mentoring your son or daughter.