With a pair of Suffolk County titles and two All-State showings, Duke University-bound Alex Tanzman is the most decorated wrestler in Westhampton Beach history.
However, when the squad looked to clinch the league title in January, the Hurricanes planned to do it with their star sitting on the sidelines.
“It was our last dual meet of the year against Shoreham Wading River and we needed to win it to win the league,” head coach Paul Bass said. “We were hoping to do it without him because he had hardly practiced in three weeks and was in a lot of pain. He had done his job for us 48 hours before when we upset [then-#3 in the state] Rocky Point and we didn’t want to wrestle him again.”
Things did not go according to plan, however. When it came time for the 106-pound weight class, instead of being in a solid position to capture the meet, Westhampton Beach trailed by double digit points.
“Alex put his head gear on, took his warm ups off and said he had to go out there for the team,” Bass said.
Tanzman wasn’t facing just an average opponent. He was set to take on James Szymanski, ranked in the top five in the state at the time after an outstanding third place performance at the Eastern States Classic.
According to Bass, Syzmanski jumped out to a three point lead lead after two periods. But Tanzman fought back in the third, escaping to begin the stanza and picking up a takedown to tie things up. In overtime, Tanzman completed the comeback to win 7-5 and propel his squad to the championship.
“It was the gutsiest thing I’ve seen in 31 years of coaching,” Bass said.
Coming from behind late in a match against a top foe takes guts, but Alex Tanzman was dealing with much more. He always had his mother, Jina Tanzman, and her battle with pancreatic cancer in his thoughts. And physically, he suffered a painful intercostal rib injury in early 2013 that impacted him the rest of the season.
“It was January 5 at our home tournament,” Tanzman said. “It was a short match. I just did a wrong motion and twisted the wrong way. After that, I slowed down. I took three weeks off to try to heal, but it didn’t really work. I wasn’t going to not wrestle my senior year so I just toughed through it. I had to change the way I wrestled. I just had to adapt.”
Adapt is a good word for what he did, according to Bass, as he moved away being from the ultra aggressive wrestler he had always been.
According to his coach, Tanzman set the Long Island record with 37 pins as a junior and was on pace to challenge that mark with 11 falls in November and December. However, the injury didn’t allow him to attack the way he typically had.
“He couldn’t be aggressive,” Bass said. “He started using a very defensive style. He gave up more takedowns in the last three weeks of the season than he had in his whole career combined. He had to square up his stance and score off of defense.”
That led to falling behind in bouts, something that had not been common for the senior in the past.
“I actually was losing in a lot of matches this year that I ended up winning,” Tanzman said. “I never got too nervous, I just tried to stay focused. I never expected to lose, even with the pain.”
A great example was in the Suffolk County finals against West Babylon’s Steven Lee. He trailed early in the contest, but responded with a pin and his second straight Section 11 title. At that point, he had a 32-1 record with his only setback coming up a weight against nationally-ranked Nick Piccininni of Ward Melville.
A few weeks later, the returning New York State bronze medalist (at 99 pounds) was the top seed at the Times Union Center at 106 and he went all the way to the championship bout before dropping a decision to Wantagh’s Kyle Quinn.
While Bass desired a different outcome, he marveled at Tanzman’s ability to achieve second place.
“To win Suffolk and go all the way to the state finals in that kind of condition is pretty amazing,” the coach said. “Everyone we talked to said that injury shuts most guys down completely. You can’t really twist certain ways. Honestly, Alex couldn’t do much and we were nervous about the lack of work he was able to do. It was touch and go for a while and we had to take one day at a time, one week at a time. He kept coming through.”
That kind of ‘can do’ attitude was reflected by the entire Westhampton Beach squad this year. Both Tanzman and Bass emphasized how the tight-knit group pulled through a lot of adversity – and on top of that, earned a lot of success on the mat.
“We had a bunch of hard, tragic events going on all around us,” Bass said. “I’ve never seen anything like it in all my years of coaching. But the kids stuck together. There was no quit in anyone. Alex was a perfect example. He was wired from his parents and teammates to keep going no matter what.”
“Our team was really close this year, all of us,” Tanzman added. “We stuck together and encouraged each other through some really hard times. It was everyone – family, friends, coaches, teachers. We were proud to win the leagues, which we wanted so bad. We were able to support each other.”
One of the many evidences of that support came from the T-shirts the team sold. According to Tanzman, the shirts were purple for pancreatic cancer and there was a “JT” on the sleeve for Jina Tanzman. The money from the sales of the apparel went to the Lustgarden Foundation, an organization that funds pancreatic cancer research.
Tanzman’s ability to fight through it all was one of the many reasons the Duke coaching staff was excited to welcome him aboard. His outstanding work in the classroom was, of course, another.
“I was always interested in Duke for the academics,” he said. “I visited a few weeks ago and met with Coach [Glen] Lanham and the wresting team. It’s a beautiful school with great sports and I really liked the coaches. It was my number one choice since the beginning of the year.”
The future economics major, who said he weighs about 122 pounds now, will redshirt his first year in Durham, North Carolina with the intention of wrestling at 125 the following season.
“Alex has all the tools,” Bass said. “He’s a very good athlete who is very explosive and strong for his size. We always knew he was tough, from the time he was in our kid program in fifth grade. He listens, he’s smart and he learns quickly. You’re on your own a lot more in college and you need to be self-motivated and independent to succeed. That’s Alex. He has his priorities straight. He chose a great university and knows that education comes first. I know he’ll do awesome.”