Suffolk County’s prominence in high school wrestling is obvious. After all, Section 11 has won the Division I title at the state championships each of the past four years, including outscoring runner up Nassau by almost 80 points in 2012.
However, when it comes to college wrestling in Suffolk, things have been a bit more quiet. In fact, according to first-year Stony Brook coach Shaun Lally, there hasn’t been a collegiate wrestling event in Section 11 in well over a decade.
That’s about to change. On Feburary 16 at 1 p.m., the Seawolves will host Cortland in an NCWA dual at Ward Melville High School that will mark the first home event for Lally’s team and an opportunity for Long Island wrestling fans to see what the Stony Brook program is all about.
“We’re so excited about this event,” Lally said. “From day one, we knew we wanted to have a home dual and pack the gym. We want to get as many people there as possible to show the university and Long Island how much we want this and how much we need this. We want to show what we’re building at Stony Brook.”
The building process is very important to Lally. After graduating from the University of Pittsburgh, he stayed involved in wrestling, coaching or officiating in a number of places in Pennsylvania, New York and Texas before buying a home in Suffolk County.
“With my roots laid down, I knew I wanted to build a program,” he said. “Stony Brook had a wrestling club for at least 10 years but it was more of a bunch of guys getting together to drill. It was time to start to get into competition.”
When he took over, Lally began by asking the wrestlers a question. (The same question he asked the author of this article when they began their interview).
Can you cook a cheeseburger better than McDonald’s?
“Of course you can cook a cheeseburger better,” Lally explained. “But you’re not a multi-billion dollar business like McDonald’s. That’s because it’s not really about the quality of the cheeseburger, it’s about the quality of the system. McDonald’s has a proven system in place that works all over the world. I’m a man of the system and I think it’s really important in wrestling.”
That system was instilled into Lally throughout his life in the sport.
“I was never an All-American in college. I was a .500 wrestler,” he said. “But I was around a lot of All-Americans and national champions. My coaches achieved those things. My high school coaches accomplished great things. In the summers, I practiced with teams at Lehigh and East Stroudsburg. I was always around the right systems and I didn’t know it at the time, but I was being educated on the right way to run a program. I’m trying to put all those things I learned in place here.”
That system seems to have yielded some big gains in a short period of time.
For one thing, the days of practicing in a racquetball court without a high quality mat will be over soon. The Stony Brook grapplers will have significantly more space, a (shared) locker room area and a brand new mat. They’ll even get laundry service.
“We actually like our wrestling room in the racquetball court,” Lally said. “It’s pretty thin, but it’s ample with its padded walls. But we’re definitely moving in a positive direction. The school let us know with these changes that they’re behind us now. They want to support us and see us do well and win.”
That sentiment goes beyond the Stony Brook Athletics department. Lally said he has seen the awareness of the Stony Brook program go up significantly within the surrounding wrestling community as well.
“I’m constantly recruiting,” he said. “At the mall, I’m shopping with a Stony Brook wrestling t-shirt and talking to people with wrestling t-shirts on. I attend the high school coaches meetings and talk about our program. It’s rewarding that I’ve been getting a slew of e-mails from parents and kids, telling me they’re interested. It’s really exciting.”
So far, there have been some solid victories on the mat, as well as some setbacks that would be expected in the earlygoing. However, Lally likes a lot of what he’s seen to date.
“We’ve really stretched our dollars and made it work on a $3,000 budget,” he said. “We’ve had some good matches and some that weren’t good, but we’ve seen some competition which will help us in March.”
March 1 is when the regional tournament takes place at the University of New Hampshire. That event determines who makes the trip to Dallas for the NCWA championships.
“We’re really looking forward to regionals,” he said. “We’ll find out who our first national qualifier will be. We expect to have several guys qualify.”
Sending as many wrestlers to the Nationals in Dallas is one of the main goals for the squad, according to Lally. Another is to have a great golf outing fundraiser on August 19. But right now the focus is on having a successful first home dual meet in front of a packed audience this weekend.
“I remember watching some of the best high school wrestling in the country in Pennsylvania and wanting to be a part of it,” Lally said. “As a little kid, you see someone out there and maybe they’re your neighbor or a family friend or someone you know about and you start thinking about how much you want to do it too. We want kids to realize they can wrestle for Stony Brook. We have great wrestling on Long Island and not everyone wants to go upstate or can afford Hofstra. Not everyone will get a scholarship. At the college level, wrestling programs are dissolving left and right. We’re excited to be providing another opportunity for wrestlers to continue after high school in a great school and great environment. There’s really a melting pot of kids here. You come on campus now and you can feel that it’s on the up and up. New buildings are being built, money is being pumped into athletics. It’s a great place to be.”
One of the reasons for the influx of investment in sports is the recent success of the baseball team, which went from being a Division III school just over a decade ago to the College World Series in 2012. Lally believes the journey that the Seawolves took on the diamond is a real inspiration.
“22 years ago, [head baseball] coach [Matt] Senk was kind of in the same position as me right now,” Lally said. “He had a club team that went Division III. And then in 2000, they went to Division I. Then last year, they made the College World Series and had a bunch of guys that were taken in the Major League Baseball draft. So they’ve come a long way and put Stony Brook on the map nationwide. We’re thinking the same way. We don’t have alumni or history in wrestling, but that’s attractive in some ways because everyone wants to be the first. Someone is going to be Stony Brook’s first All-American and Stony Brook’s first National Champion. I was talking to a friend who coaches at Mount St. Vincent [also a first-year program, but in Division III]. We were saying that this will probably be the toughest year for our programs wrestling wise but we’re building. Things are only going to keep getting better.”
Admission is free for kids for the Stony Brook vs. Cortland NCWA Dual at Ward Melville High School. Regular admission is $5.
For more information on the dual, see here.
The expected starting lineups for the dual are:
STONY BROOK SEAWOLVES vs. CORTLAND RED DRAGONS
125 Pounds: Andy Levanti (Ward Melville) vs. Justin Altro (New Paltz)
133 Pounds: Bobby Beneventano* (Hicksville) vs. Julian Staiano (Saugerties)
141 Pounds: Mase Kochath (Sachem East) vs. Anthony Padulo (Baruch)
149 Pounds: Dylan Clay (Smithtown East) vs. Nicholas Wolff (Monroe Woodbury)
157 Pounds: Mike Shimer* (Mepham) vs. Daniel Tammaro (Valley Stream South)
165 Pounds: Scott Dunkirk (Central Moriches) vs Joseph Byrne (West Islip)
174 Pounds: Matt Frey (Ward Melville) vs. Nicholas Olson (Glen Cove)
184 Pounds: Frank Modica* (Jericho) vs. Tyler Cobe (Northport)
197 Pounds: Mike Lloyd* (Hampton Bays) vs. Thomas Merenyi (Goshen)
235 Pounds: Kyle Folk-Freund (Ward Melville) vs Andrew Westman (Long Island Lutheran)
Heavyweight: Latauro Epstein (Miller Place) vs. Daniel Paulan (Raritan, NJ)
* Denotes seniors