In 2010, a pair of freshmen met for the 96-pound state championship. Mark West of Hauppauge capped off an undefeated campaign with a 2-1 victory over Lancaster’s Eric Lewandowski and it looked like the duo would be fixtures on the New York state podium for years to come.
“Mark was intense from the time he was in the youth program,” said Hauppauge head coach Chris Messina. “To be honest, we weren’t surprised that he was a state champion that early. We knew him and his work ethic and what he was capable of, especially competing against guys mostly his own age at 96 pounds. Look at his record and the guys he beat, it was a great year.”
The record shows that it was indeed a great year. West’s 43-0 mark included wins over eventual state champions or finalists Kyle Kelly, Dylan Realbuto, Drew Longo, Justin Cooksey, Trey Aslanian and Mark Raghunandan as well as other placers such as Sayville’s Matt Leshinger and Walt Whitman’s Joe Calderone.
Lewandowski’s title bout appearance wasn’t shocking to those around him, either.
“It didn’t surprise me when Eric went to the state finals as a freshman,” said Keith Maute, Executive Director of Cobra Wrestling Academy and head coach at Niagara County Community College, who has worked with Lewandowski since he began wrestling in elementary school. “I thought all year he’d be at least top four.”
The success hasn’t stopped for either wrestler since the 2009-10 campaign. West went a combined 76-11 in his sophomore and junior seasons while Lewandowski compiled an 83-18 mark over the same time frame. But neither made it back into the top six at the Times Union Center.
For West, it’s been a combination of injuries and stacked weight classes. In 2011, he looked to be in good shape to get a ticket to the big dance, but in the bronze medal match at 112 pounds in Section 11, he suffered a concussion and had to injury default. As a fourth place finisher, a bid to the state event wasn’t in the cards.
And then as a junior, the Hauppauge grappler competed in arguably the toughest Sectional tournament bracket in all of New York at 120 pounds. The top three finishers, Matt Leshinger of Sayville, TJ Fabian of Shoreham Wading River and Sean McCabe of Connetquot all made the medal stand in Albany. In fact, McCabe, who topped West 3-1 in the third place bout in Suffolk, became the state champion.
“It was difficult because Mark beat all the guys who finished ahead of him at some point that season,” Messina said. “He was right there with all of them. We felt that if he got to states, he would do well but it was a matter of getting there.”
He didn’t get a spot in the field, but West did travel to Albany to support his teammates and take in the experience.
“Mark’s been up there in Albany every year,” Messina said. “He was right by Nick’s [Mauriello, the fourth place finisher at 132] side, trying to help. He was a frustrated to not be on the mat, though.”
“It was upsetting to have to watch,” West added. “After a big year as a freshman, I wanted to make it back again. People expected so much and not making it out of the Section after all the work I put in, it was really upsetting.”
So coming into this season, West knew it was his last chance to get back on the floor at the Times Union Center. He also knew it would be far from easy. At 126 pounds, he would once again face Fabian and several other All-State caliber competitors such as Huntington’s Corey Jamison and Islip’s Brad Wade to earn top billing in Section 11.
He did what he always does, according to Messina — got back to work at a feverish pace.
“He’s really intense,” Messina said. “He’s one of the toughest, meanest kids I’ve ever seen or coached and I mean that in a good way. Mark goes so hard; he tears most guys up. Hurt or not, he doesn’t let up.”
That’s a good thing because injury struck during his semifinal bout at the Eastern States against Dylan Realbuto of Somers [in a 5-4 loss].
“It wasn’t a new injury,” Messina said of his shoulder issue. “He tweaked it against Realbuto and we made the decision to scratch him from the third place match. He really wanted to wrestle.”
He wasn’t only held out of the bronze bout. West was restricted from any activity for about a week and a half, according to the coach, and then resumed only cardio to keep his weight in check.
In fact, West didn’t go live at all from Eastern States until the League qualifier. He only began to drill two days prior to that tournament.
“Holding him out wasn’t an easy task,” Messina said. “He was furious. When he returned, we had to slow him down. It was like he wanted to make up for lost time.“
West took out his frustration on his opponents, pinning his way through the League 4 event (plus a forfeit).
He then came into the Section 11 championships with a shoulder brace and a lot of confidence and he wrestled that way, looking dominant in a bracket where dominance wasn’t really expected from any wrestler given the quality of the competition.
In his first three contests, he recorded a technical fall and a pair of majors, including over Islip’s Brad Wade, a wrestler ranked in the state, in the semis.
“We were a little worried that he would lose his conditioning, but he came back so much stronger,” Messina said. “With those wrestlers in the bracket, it’s like picking your poison. They’re all tough. But Mark took it to another level. He told me he felt really good and he was focused – all business.”
“It was pretty hard to not be able to do anything for that amount of time,” West added. “But it worked to my benefit. I had lots of time off to rest and heal everything. I think it was an advantage.”
He finished off a controlled, 5-2 victory over Jimmy Leach of Eastport South Manor to claim his second Suffolk crown and a trip to the biggest tournament of the year. In the process, he received more hardware.
“With the terrific performances from so many wrestlers, Mark getting Most Outstanding Wrestler and Champion of Champions is really a credit to him,” Messina said. “He was shocked to say the least. I actually got a smile from him.”
Why not smile? For the first time since his freshman campaign, Mark West was returning to the state capital to compete.
“He’s done a terrific job,” Messina said. “He just focused on winning this county title. He didn’t think about Fabian or Jamison or Wade. He just got it done. There’s so much pressure to win if you’ve won before, especially when you were young.”
Lewandowski can relate, but his journey has been different. He has been back in Albany the past two years after his silver medal as a ninth grader.
“Early in my freshman year, we were paying a lot of attention to state rankings,” Lewandowski said. “I thought I could do really well. I expected to go in and win. I came up a little short, but it was a good experience to have early in my career.”
The next season, Lewandowski made a leap in weight, moving up to 119 pounds. He had a solid season, followed by a 1-2 performance at the Times Union Center.
“I knew 96 wasn’t the toughest weight class,” Lewandowski said. “And I knew moving all the way to 119, I was in for a test with kids who were stronger, better and older. It was a little harder than I thought. It was actually a little shocking to get beaten on because I was used to winning.”
The following year, his junior campaign, brought about another jump – up to 132 pounds. Lewandowski once again won over 40 matches, including two in the state capital. However, in the placement round, he dropped a 4-3 decision to eventual fourth place medalist Nick Mauriello [West’s teammate] to come up one match short of the medal stand. (His other loss in Albany was to champion Jamel Hudson of St. Anthony’s).
“I really thought he was going to place last year,” Maute said. “But I think that last loss made him very focused on this year. I definitely think he’ll be in the mix to win it all.”
He has looked sharp for much of the campaign. At the Eastern States, he took sixth after being tantalizingly close to the finals.
After a pin and a technical fall in his first two matches, Lewandowski won an exciting 9-7 bout against Fox Lane’s Tom Grippi in the quarterfinals at SUNY Sullivan. In the semis, he led top-seeded Beau Donahue of Westfield, Virginia until a very late two points gave his opponent a 2-1 victory.
“He was right there at Eastern States,” Maute said. “There might have been five seconds left when he gave up those points. Eric hates losing. He doesn’t handle it the best. But those losses [including a 4-3 setback to Shenendehowa’s David Almaviva in the consolation semifinals] will help him now for one last shot.”
Lewandowski, whose brother Mark wrestles at Buffalo, said the fact that this is his last tournament with Lancaster has hit him. And it’s led him to increase his workload, trying to get in additional lifts or runs after practice to “get that little extra that could make the difference.”
“I’m ready to go six minutes plus any overtime or whatever it takes,” he said. “I’m ready for it all. Obviously, before the season started my goal was to win the state title and it’s still my goal now. I’m getting toward the end and I can see the finish line in sight. I just have to go out there and take advantage of the opportunity.”
That’s the same sentiment expressed by West.
“This year I’ve pretty much been wrestling with no regrets,” West said. “It’s my last year so I don’t want to hold back. I want to wrestle like I have nothing to lose.“
The two keep in touch, seeing each other at the Eastern States and in Albany.
“I see Mark a couple of times a year and talk to him a lot,” Lewandowski said. “He’s a good kid and I try to keep up on how he’s doing. He’s a really tough wrestler. He’s had a hard time at his Sectionals the past few years, but right now he has the same goal as everyone else. There’s just one more time to get there.”
Indeed, for both West and Lewandowski and Class of 2013 wrestlers all around New York, this week represents the last chance.
Mark West and Eric Lewandowski battled for the ultimate New York wrestling trophy as freshmen in 2010. With West at 126 and Lewandowski at 145, they won’t meet again in Albany this weekend. However, both look to take the mat on Saturday night, three years later, and leave the sport as champions – the way they expected to as ninth grade finalists.
“It would mean the world to me if I won another state title,” West said. “I came into high school winning a state title and it would be the greatest thing in the world to leave that way.”
Lewandowski wished to thank his coaches and family, as well as his longtime practice partner Steve Michel.
West spoke highly of all his coaches and family, and specifically thanked his father.