A contingent from the Journeymen Wrestling Club will soon be headed to Austria and Italy, staying for almost two weeks. But it won’t quite be a European vacation.
“It will be fun, but it’s not a tour of those countries,” Journeymen’s Frank Popolizio said. “It’s not like we’re going to the Coliseum and spending the day there. We’ll see a little bit and do some excursions but we’ll mostly be seeing the mats. We’ll be getting the feel of the European experience from a wrestling standpoint.”
The trip will continue an exchange program that the Journeymen Club has had with European wrestling over the past decade, especially with Italy.
According to Popolizio, it all started when he attended the 2003 World Championships in New York City.
“I went to see the best wrestlers in the world in our backyard, but I had a secondary thing in mind,” he said. “My brother was fourth on the Olympic ladder at the time, but Cael Sanderson was at his weight. It didn’t look too promising for him to get the nod for the USA, so I started inquiring about wrestling for Italy since our entire family is from there. I went with some information and materials to give to the Italian coach and in the process, wound up meeting Michele Liuzzi.”
Liuzzi, perhaps Italy’s best competitor at the time, was at the tail end of his career. Popolizio saw a great opportunity to work with him in the United States.
“I reached out to him over and over,” Popolizio said. “I really wanted to bring him over for a clinic, but he didn’t want to – he had removed himself from wrestling. But I was tenacious about it and it took years, but I finally got him to come over.”
A relationship was born. Liuzzi consistently visited the Albany area and began to bring some Italian athletes with him. In turn, Journeymen made the journey to Italy. And an exchange ensued.
“This will be our third time going,” Popolizio said. “We’re bringing a really good lineup of dedicated, focused guys who are all very involved in our club.”
Indeed, the list includes multiple All-State wrestlers from 2013, including a pair of silver medalists – Brandon Lapi of Amsterdam and Levi Ashley of Shenendehowa. In addition, Frank Nassivera of Queensbury (sixth at 170) made the podium while a number of other grapplers – Jake Ashcraft (Burnt Hills), Josh Logiudice (Guilderland), Connor Lawrence (Duanesburg), John McHugh (Columbia) and Blake Retell (Shaker) were all state qualifiers this February. (For the full list of attendees, see the end of the article).
“I’m definitely excited,” said John McHugh, who attends Columbia High School. “It’s a phenomenal opportunity not only for wrestling but for the whole cultural experience and a chance to go overseas.”
The impressive group of wrestlers will get plenty of opportunities to hone their freestyle skills, first for five or six days in Austria and then in Italy.
“We’ll train there and then we’ll compete,” Popolizio said. “In Austria, we’ll have a quad meet with teams from Germany, Switzerland and Austria. And the Italian camp has about 130 kids coming in from a bunch of European nations like Spain, Italy, Austria, Switzerland, Germany and probably some others.”
The competition part is something both McHugh and Popolizio remember well from the last time the Europeans traveled to New York.
“When they were here, we had a dual meet with the Italians and Austrians,” McHugh said. “That was a crazy experience. It was at one of our gyms and tons of people showed up to watch. They’ve been wrestling Freestyle and Greco their whole lives, but we did pretty well.”
“When they came here last time, it was fun training with the guys all week and then there are the matches and it’s like, ok, now it counts,” Popolizio said. “Our style of wrestling in the United States isn’t as technical as the Europeans. They’re putting a lot of time into freestyle, while it’s secondary for us. Sometimes, our technique isn’t up to snuff, but from a competitive standpoint, we have an advantage. When it was time to compete, the mindset changed and we lit them up. They had no idea what hit them. It was a lot of fun.”
There will be some fun off the mat as well. Popolizio said that the hosts will dictate the schedule, but he knows of an excursion including a hike climbing in the Alps where the group will wind up in a location that overlooks several different countries at once.
“That should be a pretty exciting day, even though we know we’re not primarily there to see Austria or Italy,” Popolizio said. “It will be heavy wrestling with some pleasure mixed in. We’re there to compete and have a cultural exchange to continue to build relationships with wrestlers in other parts of the world.”
Journeymen Wrestling Club – Attendees
Jake Ashcraft, Burnt Hills
Levi Ashley, Shenendehowa
Josh Bressette, Fort Ann
Steve Colbert, Galway
Christian Gramuglia, Burnt Hills
Dominic Inzana, Saratoga
Brandon Lapi, Amsterdam
Connor Lawrence, Duanesburg
Josh Logiudice, Guilderland
John McHugh, Columbia
Matt McHugh, Columbia
Frank Nassivera, Queensburg
Tony Papa, Burnt Hills
Kevin Parker, Shenendehowa
Blake Retell, Shaker