The sense of déjà vu was unmistakable. Hofstra’s Justin Accordino spent months and months rebounding from an ACL surgery to get back on the mats. But just 15 bouts into the 2010-2011 season, he sustained yet another severe knee injury.
For some, the grueling challenge of rehabilitation for a second time in two years would have been too much. But there was no hesitation from the Pennsylvania native. Knowing the challenge he would have to face again, he went through his second procedure and worked as hard as he could to return to Pride lineup.
“Not coming back was never going through my mind,” Accordino said. “This is something I love to do. The coaches asked me if I wanted to keep wrestling and it was always yes, yes. I really worked through my rehab as hard as I could.”
Prior to his injuries, Accordino made an immediate impact in his first season of college wrestling, with a 25-13 record and a 2-2 mark at the NCAA tournament. He registered several quality victories, including a major decision over this year’s NCAA champion, Frank Molinaro.
Two injury-interrupted campaigns later, he came into this year at 149 pounds with hopes of returning to his earlier form. Initially, things didn’t go as smoothly as he hoped, as he had a 10-8 record after the Southern Scuffle in early January.
“He had two years off the mat and with that, he had some rust,” said Hofstra head coach Rob Anspach. “At times he was wrestling really well, but then even in the same day, he was inconsistent. I think over time he felt more comfortable that nothing was going to happen to his knee and he just kept improving.”
Accordino appeared to hit his stride late in the season, winning 13 of his final 16 bouts and taking second at the CAA Championships behind Binghamton’s Donnie Vinson.
“From late January on, he really started looking good,” Anspach said. “He grinded out a win over [Cornell’s Chris] Villalonga and then wrestled [Pittsburgh’s Tyler] Nauman really tough. He shots were more crisp and he was attacking more. He was looking like the guy we recruited again.”
While he didn’t receive a seed for the NCAAs, he felt comfortable with his placement in the bracket where his first opponent would be Purdue’s Ivan Lopouchanski, the 12th seed.
“We thought Justin matched up well with Lopouchanski,” Anspach said. “And then his next opponent would be the fifth seed [Kent State’s Ian] Miller, who was a true freshman. You never know how freshmen will react at this tournament. So I liked the spot we were in.”
Accordino began with an 8-4 decision over the Boilermaker and followed that up with a second period fall against Miller. He continued his roll with an 11-3 triumph over Oklahoma’s Nick Lester in which he built up a sizable lead early with a five-point move.
“He’s always a guy who went after big moves,” Anspach said. “He’s dangerous because he can do it all. He can hit leg attacks, he can throw, he can hit cement mixers. He’s never really out of a match. He’s went out and wrestled wide open and it got him to the semifinals.”
Getting to the semis assured Accordino of All-American status. For someone who didn’t know if he would be able to wrestle again at a high level, it was a significant accomplishment.
“It’s awesome,” Accordino said after beating Lester. “I’ve been working for this accomplishment since my freshman year. It’s great to hear [All-American] after fighting through injuries and working so hard.”
“It’s unbelievable,” added Anspach. “Every year you come out to NCAAs and see guys get hot at the right time. He didn’t have an easy road. I’m really happy he’s an All-American.”
Accordino wasn’t the only Pride wrestler to overcome an injury-shortened season to achieve an NCAA triumph. 125-pounder Steve Bonanno wrestled just one match in 2009 before an elbow problem sidelined him for the remainder of the campaign. The Wantagh native returned to the lineup last year, taking second at the CAAs and winning a match at NCAAs.
This year, however, Bonanno took another step forward, demonstrating he could compete with the best throughout the season, going 26-8 and placing at the Las Vegas Invitational and the Southern Scuffle.
“Steve just approached matches with a different kind of confidence this year,” Anspach said. “When he was a freshman, there were zero expectations on him and he competed well in the underdog role. But after that, all of a sudden there were expectations on him and he didn’t handle it that well. When he wrestled bigger names, he got taken down right away. Deep down, he didn’t believe he was an All-American. But this year, he believed in himself. He thought he should win and wrestled that way.”
Seeded 12th in St. Louis, Bonanno started off with a victory before dropping a close decision to Kent State’s Nic Bedelyon. However, he responded with a pair of wins in the consolations and faced a matchup with Pittsburgh’s Anthony Zanetta to determine whether he would earn All-American status.
The two wrestlers were not strangers. Last year at nationals in Philadelphia, Zanetta eliminated Bonanno from the competition with a 5-3 decision. This regular season, Bonanno got some revenge, defeating Zanetta by major and by 6-1 decision.
In perhaps the most important meeting between them this year, Bonanno made it three in a row against the Panther, but it wasn’t easy. Zanetta notched two takedowns in the first period to take a 4-1 lead. In the second, Bonanno escaped and scored a takedown of his own to knot the score at 4. The Pride junior then had to ride the entire third to send the bout into overtime, which he did. After no one scored in sudden victory, Bonanno turned his opponent for nearfall points in the tiebreakers to earn a spot on the podium for the first time in his career.
“We felt confident going in but the second match against Zanetta this year was a lot closer than the first and we thought this would be even closer,” Anspach said. “Zanetta wrestled a great match. Steve was down early but he seemed calm and just kept wrestling. He needed to be tough and gritty and grind it out. It was a typical Steve match – he had to work hard and he’s one of the hardest workers we have. It’s a great feeling to have someone like him reach his goals. I couldn’t be happier.”
Bonanno will be back for the Pride next year, and head coach Rob Anspach is hoping Accordino will join him. The team is currently in the process of applying for a sixth year for the 149 pounder and although the NCAA has strict criteria, Anspach thinks the case for Accordino is strong.
Two wrestlers that will not return next season for the Pride are 2011 All-American PJ Gillespie and Ben Clymer, a pair of seniors who competed in Hofstra singlets for the final time in St. Louis.
“PJ and Ben have done amazing things for our program,” he said. “I would have liked to see Ben finish with 100 wins and he came up a few short. Neither of them finished the way they wanted to, but that in no way defines their careers. They were great assets to the program and they definitely will be missed.”
Whether or not Accordino is on the mat for the 2012-13 campaign, Anspach believes the example he set, coming back from season ending injuries to make the podium, is instructive for the rest of the program.
“You never know what will happen and when your opportunities will come,” he said. “A lot of people told Justin to call it quits, enough is enough. But he was determined to be an All-American and he went out and did it. He believed that he should do everything he could to reach his goals and if he didn’t get there, at least he wouldn’t have any regrets.”
On Saturday night, as he stood on the podium and accepted his trophy, it didn’t look like Accordino had any regrets at all.