There were some twists and turns along the way, but the Empire State’s debut in the All-Star division at the AAU Scholastic Duals (aka Disney Duals) was a success, as Team New York Kong took eighth place in Orlando in a competition that featured teams from all over the country.
“I’m so proud of these kids,” said coach Anthony Ciolino. “What they did was awesome. To go to a national tournament, one of the toughest I’ve been to, and get to the All-American round is unbelievable, especially when you’re giving up as many points as we had to.”
According to Ciolino, who hadn’t participated in an AAU event before, the rules of the organization in New York limited the number of scoring team members by region of the state. When he arrived in Florida, Ciolino was informed that some of the grapplers who had made the trip would not be allowed to figure into the scoring and therefore, every dual meet essentially began with a 12-0 deficit.
“We brought a great team – every one of the guys was an All-State wrestler,” Ciolino said. “I couldn’t believe we had to tell wrestlers like [state second placer finishers] Jacob Berkowitz, El Shaddai Van Hoesen and Nicky Hall that they could wrestle but their matches would be scored as forfeits for the other team. Those guys wrestled very well, but every dual, 182 and 285 didn’t count.”
Early on, that didn’t matter. The squad opened with four blowout victories over opponents from Ohio, Michigan and Delaware and went 6-1 overall in pool action, with the one setback against Pennsylvania’s Team Diesel, which was the eventual runner up.
The team then won its next two meets against teams from Missouri and Georgia before dropping its final two contests to Keystone Elite (PA) and Michigan’s MYWA Blue, bouts both Ciolino and Cornell-recruit Dylan Palacio felt would have gone differently with a full strength side.
“Looking at it, I think we were the third-best team there,” Palacio said. “Diesel beat us, no question. They were just really, really good. But the other duals we could have won. At that level, with nationally ranked kids everywhere, giving up 12 points in a dual [and 18 against Michigan with one team member having to leave], there’s no way to come back. We took the challenge with a grain of salt and made the top eight.”
In the process of making the top eight, many individuals stood out. Among them was a pair of undefeated wrestlers – Palacio and Frewsburg’s Nick Mitchell.
Palacio topped multiple nationally-ranked foes, including Pennsylvania state champion Garrett Peppelman, in his only close bout. In fact, Peppelman took an early 5-0 lead, but Palacio chipped away at the deficit, eventually notching back points very late in the third period to get the victory.
“I wasn’t happy with how I wrestled in that match,” Palacio said. “I had to claw my way back. There was a point in the match where I had to ask myself if I believed I could win. But there was no going back. I wasn’t tired. I believed I should win every time I wrestled and I got it done.”
Mitchell, who will attend Edinboro in the fall, got the job done as well.
“Nick Mitchell is one of the slickest kids in New York State. He was really, really good,” Palacio said. “People like to talk about who’s better, D1 or D2 [Division 1 or 2] in New York. After this weekend, I know that D2 kids are for real. I might have been skeptical, but they shut me up really quickly.”
According to Ciolino, several other wrestlers registered seven or more victories for NY Kong during the event in addition to Mitchell and Palacio, including Marathon’s Lucas Malmberg, Lansing’s William Koll, Wayne’s Alec Dierna, Shenendehowa’s Nick Kelley, Williamsville East’s Dylan Cohen, Longwood’s Corey Rasheed, Medina’s Tristan Hamner and Niagara Wheatfield’s Max Antone.
“Hamner really battled and beat some very good kids,” Palacio said. “Antone surprised me. He was so athletic, doing flips and cartwheels. I was in a state of shock.”
A similar state of shock may have been felt by a crowd at the team’s hotel as they saw a large snake on the premises. According to Ciolino, there was Palacio, standing near the lizard, speaking in an Australian accent, instructing people and trying to keep them calm.
“I was acting like the snake wrangler,” he said. “Everyone was listening to me. That was a funny time, and there were so many others. There was stuff like that all week. Everyone was funny and laid back. We became really close – it was like wrestling with my friends and wrestling with family and there’s nothing better than that.”
“I couldn’t believe how the team jelled,” Ciolino agreed. “It didn’t feel like I brought a team from every corner of the state, even though that’s what I did. It felt like the team was a bunch of guys who went to high school together. They had a great time at the pool, at Disney World, playing jokes on each other. It was unbelievable.”
Despite some of the initial issues, it’s an experience Ciolino is hoping to repeat again in 2013.
“A lot of the juniors already told me they want to come back,” he said. “It’s not a hard sell. It’s a great place to be and you know the kind of competition you’ll see here. The national exposure is great. I had college coaches asking me about some of the guys. Now I know the rules and we want to do it again.”
That was a sentiment echoed by Palacio, although he’s headed to college.
“I went with a North Carolina team last year but this was way better,” he said. “I would love to do it all over again. We took the good with the bad but in the end, I think we showed everyone that New York is for real.”
[Ciolino wished to thank Steve Hromada and Kim McClaugherty for all their work during the trip].
Lucas Malmberg, Marathon
Justin Cooksey, MacArthur
Jimmy Overhiser, Corning
William Koll, Lansing
Alec Dierna, Wayne
Nick Kelley, Shenendehowa
Dylan Cohen, Williamsville East
Corey Rasheed, Longwood
Tristan Hamner, Medina
Nicky Hall, Longwood
Dylan Palacio, Long Beach
Nick Mitchell, Frewsburg
Jacob Berkowitz, Scarsdale
Austyn Hayes, Phoenix
Max Antone, Niagara Wheatfield
El Shaddai Van Hoesen, Columbia