At first, it was about the trophies.
Reggie Williams missed basketball tryouts and he was looking for something to take the place of hoops in his schedule.
“In sixth grade, I didn’t have a sport to play in the winter,” Williams said. “One of my friends always rubbed in my face that he had all these wrestling trophies. I got only trophy per season in baseball, basketball and football, but in wrestling there were more.”
So, he decided to give wrestling a shot. And he took to it right away.
When seventh grade rolled around, Williams began on the modified team like most of his classmates, especially those at the higher weights. But that didn’t last too long.
“I think I was on modified for a week,” Williams said with a laugh. “I pretty much destroyed everyone.”
So the next stop was the junior varsity, where his stay was longer than a week, but still pretty brief. About halfway into the season, Williams moved up to the varsity squad only about a year after picking up the sport.
He didn’t waste any time finding success, placing fifth at the Section 4 tournament.
“It was pretty cool that I took fifth,” he said. “Coach [Peter] Capone did a great job teaching me some basics – a double leg, a breakdown, a stand up. But I still didn’t know what I was doing a lot of the time on the mat.”
He asked Capone what he needed to do to get to the next level and then he got to work. He began lifting, learning more technique and training with a variety of partners. A wide variety.
There were, of course, partners like the many he works with in the Johnson City room now, such as fellow state qualifiers Greg Kleinsmith, who Johnson City head coach Jordan Glenn said is exceptional on his feet and Zach Colgan, who is excellent in the top position. But Williams worked with several others as well.
“I honestly believe anyone can wrestle anyone,” he said. “I was beaten up in the room by a guy who weighed 140 pounds. I mean, brutally destroyed. Good technique can do anything. I wrestle with everyone. I find myself wrestling the little guys more than the big guys. I love training with the lightweights, so I can change up the pace of my matches. After my practices, I also love to go wrestle with the pee wees. They gang up and all attack me at the same time. It’s fun to see the smiles on their faces and I try to teach them the basic things, because the basics can take you far.”
They took Williams pretty far as an eighth grader. In the semifinals of the Sectionals, he pinned an opponent who had placed higher than him in a tournament earlier in the year. He was headed to the Section 4 title bout and he said he was overcome with emotion.
“I looked at my coach and I started crying,” he said. “My whole family came for the finals and the crowd was packed. I wrestled my heart out and ended up losing in triple overtime. I was hoping for a wildcard to states, but didn’t get it.”
Williams said he was disappointed, but not for too long. His breakthrough was about to come.
“I felt like I really kept getting better and better without taking one step back,” he said of his ninth grade year.
It showed. He racked up a 32-14 record as a freshman and captured his first Section 4 crown, winning by bonus points in each of his Sectional bouts.
Williams was unseeded in Albany as one of only two ninth graders in the 189-pound bracket, but he was undaunted. In the second round, he met the number-two seed, Joe Cummings of Nyack, and came out on top 5-4 after hitting a snap down, spin behind in the third period.
In the semifinals, he fought hard against current North Carolina wrestler Frank Abbondanza, but a big move at the end of the second period was the difference in a loss.
“I still don’t remember how it happened,” he said. “He had my leg and then the next thing I knew, I was trying to scramble and then I was falling backwards and the referee was counting back points. I was really down after that match and it cost me a lot. I didn’t bounce back well and I lost to guys I shouldn’t have in the wrestlebacks. I learned something there about being stronger after losses.”
He put that to good use that summer as he earned All-America status at the NHSCA Freshman Nationals in Virginia Beach (fourth at 189 pounds). His mettle was tested early as he fought through a close bout in the first round with some recognizable college coaches looking on.
“At Virginia Beach part of the reason that I finished where I did was that I was more of a straightforward wrestler at the time,” he said. “I didn’t really take angled shots. Learning some Freestyle and Greco really helped me improve with angles.”
He apparently was a quick study as he went to Fargo for the Freestyle and Greco national championships a few months later and got on the podium there as well – while up a weight class (fifth at 215 pounds).
“Going into Fargo, I had an idea of how big the tournament was, but when I got there, I saw it was so much bigger than I expected,” he said. “I didn’t realize how tough it is to wrestle so many matches in such a short time. You go hard in every single match against good competition and it got to me. I’ve never been so exhausted. If I was in better shape, I could have done better but the experience was amazing.”
Amazing could describe his sophomore year back in New York for the Wildcats as well. In 2011-12, Williams registered a 39-3 mark, with all but six victories coming by bonus points and with all three losses coming against Shenendehowa state champion Tony Fusco.
The final setback was in the state finals, where Williams had quite a crowd pulling for him.
He said he remembers looking up at the stands and seeing Doug Stento, his football coach who he speaks fondly of, his mom and dad who don’t often see his matches, and his teammates. In addition, he caught a glimpse of the t-shirt that was signed by a large number of Johnson City students (pictured).
“I saw all those people and I had that desire,” he said. “I got so fired up and wanted to do well to represent my school and my section. Honestly, I felt like I was ready to play in the Super Bowl. I made three mistakes and they cost me dearly. Tony [Fusco] isn’t offensive or flashy, but he’s tough and strong. When I made mistakes, he took advantage. The worst part was that I felt like I let a lot of people down.”
Williams retreated to his hotel room afterwards, where he was soon joined by fellow silver medalist Keegan Cerwinski of Greene and a number of other Section 4 wrestlers.
“It seemed like the whole Section team was there,” he said. “We went out and walked the streets in Albany, talked and had a good time. Sometimes you have to just enjoy the little things in life.”
Right now, that’s enjoying football season where he is a fullback and linebacker and, for a brief time, he eats whatever he pleases. But his mind doesn’t often stray from wrestling, which he sees far into his future.
He said he has received letters from a number of top schools, including Iowa, Cornell, Columbia, Oklahoma and Lehigh, among others. Williams isn’t sure what direction he’ll choose, but did stress that he’s looking for a place where his academic success will be a priority. He also made clear that contrary to what he might have thought in the past, he won’t be a heavyweight.
“Reggie was thinking for a while he could be at 285 in college but then we went to the Penn State vs. Ohio State dual meet,” head coach Jordan Glenn said. “After he saw the size of the boys at that level, he didn’t think that heavyweight would be the route for him.”
In fact, Williams said he “should have gone 182” last year and that he may certify at that weight for the upcoming campaign.
But at this point, the most important number isn’t his weight – it’s “nine”.
“We tell the boys all the time about the eight individual state champions we’ve had at this school,” Glenn said. “We talk about who will step up and become the ninth. We’re looking to get number nine this year and Reggie has what it takes to do it.”
“I’m thinking all the time about being number nine,” Williams said before quickly adding, “Or number 10 if one of my teammates beats me to it. That’s what’s driving me so much right now. I’m going all out. I don’t want to lose a match and I want to pin anyone who steps on the mat with me. My mindset now is that I have to win. I wanted to be a three-time state champion but now I want to be the first two-time champion in Johnson City history. I daydream about what I would do after winning states a lot.”
That would be yet another trophy for Reggie Williams.
More Season Preview Articles (and more on the way)
Features (more to come):
Section 1 Feature: Aslanian and Realbuto, All-State Wrestlers and Workout Partners, Seek to End Their Careers on Top of the Podium
Section 5 Feature: The “Miracle” Continues: The Return of Aaron Paddock
Section 11 Feature: Nick Piccininni Looks to Continue Winning Streak