Wantagh's Danny McDevitt, Champion On and Off the Mat, Commits to Penn

 
 

By MATT DIANO

The story of Wantagh High School senior Danny McDevitt’s commitment to Coach Rob Eiter and the University of Pennsylvania wrestling team has become something of a running joke at New York Wrestling News.  An article that we had intended to bring to you in mid-January when the news became official, it seemed that every time we sat down to pen the piece, McDevitt would go on to win another big event later in that week, forcing us to start anew.

Photo by BV

With these sentiments in mind, it might seem peculiar that we are choosing now, fresh off of an event (the 2013 New York State tournament) that the Warrior student-athlete did not win, to finally publish. We would disagree.  Because, for those of you who know the future Quaker and have had the privilege of following his career, you already are keenly aware of the fact that independent of any scoreboards, brackets or podiums, Danny McDevitt is, was, and will be a champion, both on the wrestling mat and especially in life.  So no, this article is not about a 2013 New York State champion making his college selection; it is much bigger than that. It’s about a young man, with tremendous depth of character, realizing his dream.  This is an All-American story about an individual who has always done Wantagh proud and will continue to do so next fall when he steps foot on the Philadelphia-based Ivy League campus.

So who is Danny McDevitt?  If you answered, “wrestler”, you would be correct, but would also be guilty of painting the talents and attributes of this young man with much too broad a brush.  He is a scholar, ranking towards the top of his class academically; a brother, who has such a tight and loving bond with his siblings that after watching him win the 2013 Nassau County title, his sister could not help but be overjoyed and sing his praises on a live interview being conducted on MSG Varsity; and above all else, Danny is known as a generous and selfless friend.

The latter would be on full display this past weekend when despite being at the lowest point of his senior season (after losing for the first time), McDevitt did something that brings tears to my eyes, just thinking about it.  If you want to know what makes McDevitt special, it’s that without a second thought, he was the person who took it upon himself to go over to 2013 New York State runner up, John Vrasidas (who because he is from the CHSAA is not eligible for the full array of awards bestowed upon other placewinners) and hand him the second-place medal because as Danny was quoted as saying, “you deserve this.”

Photo by BV

All of the aforementioned having been said, we return to McDevitt’s prowess on the wrestling mat, a home away from home for him where he has been about as dominant as you can get during his six year varsity career.  A four-time Section 8 placewinner, winning the title the past two years at 138 and 170 pounds respectively, the only times McDevitt did not win the Nassau County title, he came pretty darn close, finishing as a bronze medalist as a freshman before taking home runner-up honors in 2011.  As important as individual honors may be, if you ask McDevitt, he is quick to redirect attention back on his teammates by reminding us that during the four years he was a student at Wantagh, the Warriors never failed to finish lower than second in the team standings, winning titles from 2011-2013.

State-wise, this consummate gentleman more than held his own, earning a pair of top-five finishes in Albany, including a bronze medal this past weekend that witnessed him shake off a heartbreaking loss in the quarterfinals to Vrasidas to win four straight bouts in the consolation bracket.  He added this hard-fought third place showing to the fifth place performance he notched last year, losing a pair of nailbiters in the semifinal and consolation semifinal rounds.

Nationally, the Paul Gillespie (at Wantagh) and Craig Vitagliano (at the Ascend Wrestling Club) trained student-athlete has also enjoyed success, demonstrating on multiple occasions that he possesses the skill level to go toe-to-toe with the country’s elite.  (Gillespie mentioned that the presence of former Hofstra All-American PJ Gillespie in the room during the 2012-13 season provided another boost to McDevitt’s performance).  Earning his first All-American distinction in 2011 at the NHSCA Sophomore National tournament with an eighth place finish, McDevitt would return to Virginia Beach last season, improving his lot by a few spots, placing fifth.  Should he make the decision to compete in the Senior tournament, it would hardly surprise anyone to see him ascend (no pun intended) to the top of the podium.

With regard to what awaits McDevitt in the future, I can tell you this; if desire to achieve is any indicator of success on the collegiate level, then this young man is going all the way.  Someone who could have attended pretty much any college or university in the country, it is impossible to overstate how much McDevitt is looking forward to being a Quaker.  In chatting with him for only a few moments, it is easy to tell how invested he is in making the next four years the most fulfilling of his life.

“I am ecstatic about UPenn,” McDevitt said. “My mother was always passionate about me going there and was extremely happy when I got in.”

As it pertains to what it was about the fourth oldest university in the country that ultimately won him over and convinced him that it was the best place for him, McDevitt, who intends to major in business, was quick to speak about the unmatched reputation of the Wharton School, which continues to produce some of the finest corporate minds in the world.  He also was very complimentary of Eiter, suggesting that his future coach’s immediate interest in him was confidence boosting and won him over.  Stating it succinctly, McDevitt said, “Everything about the school is just fantastic.”

Speaking candidly about his star pupil, Vitagliano could not contain his genuine pride.

“I’m extremely excited for Danny, his family and Coach Gillespie,” Vitagliano said. “Coach Eiter is getting a really special kid here! He and I have been through a lot together these past five years and I feel extremely honored to have been a part of his journey. This year has been exceptionally tough for him and the fact he was able to overcome his difficulties really shows what he is made of and is an indication of how well he will do in the future.”

 

"Olympic Level Good": Friends Remember Jeff Blatnick

National Wrestling Hall of Fame member and Olympic Gold Medalist Jeff Blatnick’s passing was a shock to the wrestling community.  It’s a story that has been covered by both the wrestling and mainstream media as many have articulated his numerous and signficant accomplishments both on and off the mat.

For some additional perspectives, New York Wrestling News asked a few people who knew Jeff Blatnick to provide reflections on the impact he had on their lives.  We’ll let them tell more of the story of Jeff Blatnick.

 

Kyle Dake, Three-time NCAA Champion at Cornell

“When I first met Coach Blatnick, I found out pretty quickly that he was one of the friendliest and most incredible people to be around.  What I really remember is how he was full of wisdom.  I always took to heart what he said, whether it was about wrestling or life in general because it was always wise.

He called me “The Ferret” because when we first met I was a 98-pound freshman who was all over the place with so much energy.  As I got bigger, he tried to think of another nickname, but Ferret stuck.  The years I wrestled at Fargo, Coach Blatnick was there.  He was my second coach with Scott Green.  I always had complete trust in him.  I always felt good when he was in my corner because he was a commanding presence who was so knowledgeable about the sport.

After my freshman year in college I went to Fargo to be a team coach and I got to spend time with him. Not as a wrestler and a coach, but as a friend. We had some great conversations about wrestling and life and it was a really special time that I’ll never forget. We had a relationship where we were really strongly connected even though we didn’t see each other that much. I’m still in disbelief that he’s gone.  I appreciated him and looked up to him so much as a person.”

 

Nick Gwiazdowski, NCAA All-American (now at North Carolina State)

“In eighth grade when I started Freestyle and Greco, Jeff Blatnick started coaching me.  The thing he helped me with the most was my approach to wrestling.  Wrestling is such an exciting sport and it’s easy to get really pumped up and have a lot of emotion.  He taught me how to bring the emotion down, visualize and relax and get prepared for matches.  He simplified things for me and a lot of the little things he taught me, I still do in my matches today.

More important, he was someone I liked being around.  You could travel to a tournament with him and never talk about wrestling.  He was someone you could always talk to about anything and he would be there for you.  People would introduce him as an Olympic champion, but he would never introduce himself like that.  He was so humble.  He never really mentioned the things he accomplished.  It was all about helping you get better at wrestling or helping you in some other way.  He will be missed by a lot of people.  It will be very different without him.”

 

Alexis Porter, Two-Time Freestyle National Champion

“I remember when I first met him, at a small peewee tournament.  I hadn’t been wrestling for more than a few months.  He saw something in me that day that not a lot of people had seen and he became my coach.  I knew he was a legend who was courageous and inspirational but he didn’t focus on his own story.  He was focused on making everyone in our club the best wrestler they could be and help them achieve the biggest goals possible.

My first year at Fargo, I lost in the consolation finals.  I was upset and angry. He told me I had nothing to be ashamed of and that next year I would be on top of the podium.  He said I had bigger things to look forward to.  Sure enough, the next year, he was in my corner when I won my first national title.  He was one of the best wrestlers and coaches I’ve seen and an even better man.  I’m grateful that I had the opportunity to know him and to call him my coach.”

 

Craig Vitagliano, Team New York Freestyle Coach (Ascend Wrestling)

“I knew about Jeff Blatnick growing up.  He was one of the first wrestlers I saw on the Olympic level and I remember sitting and watching the gold medal match.  I’d heard about all the adversity he had to overcome and the way he focused and won the Olympic gold was inspiring for me. It was an amazing moment in Olympic history.

Fast forward to the past couple of years when I got to know Jeff on the Freestyle circuit.  Our club battled Journeymen a number of times and he was always respectful, friendly and approachable.  There was no arrogance despite all he accomplished.  He was also light hearted with a great sense of humor.  He was behind a big joke played on me at Fargo this year when I was told that I failed my bronze certification test and was going to be removed from the event.  Jeff was the leader of it and had me going for about 20 minutes.  He was a great man and a great ambassador and it’s a huge loss.”

 

Dylan Palacio, High School National Champion and Cornell Recruit

“Even when I was unsuccessful, [Blatnick] believed in me.  He saw some potential and kept pushing me to achieve what he thought I was capable of.  It’s really rare to find someone so genuine, who just wants you to be better and achieve great things.  He truly cared about the sport and the people in it. My biggest regret is that I never told him how much of an impact he had on me. I really want to do things now to make sure he looks down and says, ‘I was right about that kid.’ I could go on for days about all the things he’s accomplished but what really sticks with me is how sincere he was about wanting to see kids succeed.”

 

Mike Kelley, Journeymen Wrestling

“He always went out of his way to help the kids.  There was a tournament in Connecticut that was over two hours away and bunch of kids were supposed to go.  Then kids started dropping out and only two were left.  A lot of coaches would have decided not to go with only two kids.  But he insisted on going. That’s the kind of guy he was.  If he said he was going to do something, he did it. He always took the time.

Last year at Freestyle states, Nick [Kelley, Mike’s son and Fargo All-American] had an injury to his mouth and it got hit again and was pretty bad.  [Blatnick] went around the place asking everyone if they had a facemask for Nick to use.  He didn’t stop until he found one.  He looked out for everyone.  It wasn’t just successful wrestlers.  It didn’t matter who it was.  If it was first-year kids making all kinds of mistakes, he went out of his way to spend time with them.  He went the extra mile.

He was a great coach. He had a calming effect.  Nick said no matter how loud it was, he could always hear [Blatnick] and his instructions even though he didn’t scream.  There was just something about him.  He was a great guy that will be missed.”

 

Frank Popolizio

“Jeff was an enormous part of our organization at Journeymen Wrestling and the wrestling community as a whole.  Above all, Jeff was a gentleman and an ambassador.  A lot of people look at him as a wrestling guy, but he was a lot more than that. He was a major ambassador for the disabled.  He played a big role in the Special Olympics.  He was involved in cancer-related causes.  It seemed like he was always at fundraising events for cancer and helping to raise awareness.

He was a tremendous worker on top of it all.  He spent a lot of time in the wrestling room trying to help the kids.  He was in charge of our Freestyle program.  Freestyle ends in July and so did his obligations and responsibilities to being there for the kids.  But he’d be there in August and September and October.  I’d tell him he didn’t have to be there, but he wanted to be.  That’s the kind of guy he was.  He cared tremendously about the kids and they really responded to him.

The angle that’s not being covered is an ability that Jeff had as maybe the best, most effective wrestling diplomat.  He was in charge of things that were very political, including the head of USA Wrestling New York.  It’s a difficult position working with many different groups and personalities, but he was able to navigate through it with ease.  I don’t think it was easy, but he made it look easy.  He was really good at it – Olympic level good.  We were all better off for the work he did.

We lost a giant of a guy figuratively and literally.  It’s an enormous void on so many levels and I’m not sure you can ever truly fill it.”

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We’ll end with an inspiring video of Jeff Blatnick at the 1984 Olympic Games, winning his gold medal and reacting afterwards.  Popolizio said watching it gave him goose bumps and it did the same for us.  RIP, Jeff Blatnick, you will be missed.