Every year, Shenendehowa head coach Rob Weeks challenges his team at the start of the season to be the best team he’s ever had.
That’s a pretty tall order for a program that has been among New York’s best for years. The Plainsmen have finished atop the team points race at the State Championships multiple times, captured the Dual Meet title in 2011 and have won their Section every year since 2005.
But according to the coach, this year’s squad is doing its part.
At the Glens Falls Civic Center last weekend, six Shenendehowa wrestlers won Section titles and punched their tickets to the State Championships February 24-25 in Albany. They will be joined by two additional teammates who were granted wildcard spots. That topped the five automatic qualifiers (and seven overall entrants) from a year ago.
“We have a great group of kids who have had success throughout the season,” Weeks said. “Our expectations are high and they keep performing up to them. What we need to do now is get some of our individuals to become state champions.”
Leading the way has been a pair of undefeated grapplers ranked number one at their weights in the state, junior 132-pounder Nick Kelley and senior Tony Fusco (195). Both placed fourth in Albany in 2011 (Kelley at 130 and Fusco at 189).
Kelley has cruised through the season without a loss, recently picking up his 200th career victory during the Sectional event.
“Nick is a pretty grounded kid who doesn’t talk about himself at all,” Weeks said. “You have to tell him about milestones like that before he acknowledges them. 200 wins is a big milestone and he has already achieved a lot in the sport. But in reality he’s focused on one objective, and that’s being a state champ.”
The junior may be the favorite to do so, having defeated some of the top contenders in the Empire State while capturing the Eastern States crown in January.
“Nick has wrestled exceptionally well when he’s needed to,” Weeks said. “He’s had a few good wins against high caliber wrestlers, and he has placed at states a few times, so he won’t be overwhelmed at the big event. He’s always been a really hard worker and we’re hoping he’ll come home with the hardware he’s been working for.”
While Kelley has a lot of wrestling in front of him, senior teammate Fusco is looking to end his wrestling career on top of the podium for the first time. The undefeated 195-pounder signed with Albany to play football next year.
“Tony is a talented kid,” Weeks said. “He’s an elite athlete but also is very likable and engaging. He has a different kind of pressure because if he wants to finish on top in wrestling, it has to be in Albany [this] week. That’s a big motivator for him. He wants to do whatever it takes to win a state title.”
Also looking for titles will be the squad’s other four Section champions, eighth grader Kevin Parker (99), Corey Ali (106), Zach Joseph (120) and David Almaviva (138). It was the first Section crown for each of the four, but it won’t be the first trip to Albany for one them. Almaviva had a taste of the Albany experience last season when he took sixth at 135 pounds.
“He is peaking at the right time,” Weeks said. “He had some hiccups at Eastern States [where he sustained two of his three season losses] but wrestled great caliber kids there in close matches. I think he’s a much improved wrestler since then, if not physically, then mentally. I think he has a legitimate shot of not only placing high but winning the state title.”
The same holds true for senior Cole Lampman, who took fifth at heavyweight last season at the state tournament but was upset this year in the Section final against Cory Quintana in overtime. It was just his second setback of the season and the first against an Empire State wrestler. He has been ranked at or near the top of the 285 class all year and received a wildcard invitation to the state tournament. (113-pounder Jesse Porter was granted an at-large bid as well).
“We knew Quintana is very athletic and hard working,” Weeks said. “We knew going in it was going to be a match decided by a couple of points. Quintana was exceptional. I could see them meeting again at states.”
Regardless of the outcome in Albany, the heavyweight has a bright future both athletically and academically. He will attend Princeton next fall.
“Cole is a very, very intelligent kid,” he said. “He really fits the mold of a ‘Princeton guy’, Ivy League all the way through. He’s a great athlete and also a great kid.”
Weeks, who won his 200th career match in December and was named the New York State Coach of the Year last season, attributes the success of the Shenendehowa program to a number of factors. He praises the work of assistant coaches Frank Popolizio and John Meys, junior varsity coach Chris Capezzuti and modified coaches Ryan Fenton and James Ward. He thanks the booster club, the parents and school district for giving necessary support. And he believes the combination of sports and scholastics exemplified by participants like Lampman play a tremendous role.
“This is a good academic school,” he said. “Kids here are academically driven and success breeds success in the sport of wrestling. I’ve been around situations where there were good athletes who weren’t such good kids. A lot of babysitting was needed. And I’ve seen places with good kids who weren’t such good athletes. Here we’re blessed to have good athletes who are also good kids.”
Colleges have taken notice. There is an extensive list of recent Shenenedehowa alumni competing at the next level including, but not limited to: Hunter Meys (Boston University), Austin Meys and Jim Carucci (Lehigh), Seth Hazleton (Princeton), TJ Popolizio (Brown), John Belanger (Army), Max Miller (Cortland), and Mike Almaviva (Oneonta State).
“Colleges respect history and we’ve proven that kids that come out of here are qualified to wrestle at the next level whether it’s Division I or Division III,” he said. “We’ve been fortunate to send kids to prestigious schools. The unwritten goal of a head coach is to see kids be successful in high school and move on to the college level, whether they wrestle or not. Wrestling teaches them and reinforces so many things that help them be successful in their lives.”
At this point, the team is narrowing its lens on short-term success. While Shenendehowa may be the favorite to win the Division I team points race in Albany, the coach believes that success for the remainder of the campaign will come from focus on the individuals.
“We’ve won the team state title a couple of times and it’s a nice reward for the kids and the program,” he said. “But that’s almost a secondary goal now. The objective now is to focus on the individual. If each of our guys achieves what they are capable of, the team title will come.”
In a few days, the 2011-12 Plainsmen may stake a claim to being the best team Weeks has ever coached, but even if they don’t, Weeks has only good things to say about them.
“I know I’m blessed to have a group like this,” Weeks said. “I don’t know if I can replace this group and this team. It is a constant pleasure to show up and coach them. They make it easy. Hopefully we’ll have success [at States]. Then, I’ll challenge next year’s team to be the best one we’ve ever had again.”