Fargo Recap: Honoring Jeff Blatnick, the Porters, Bringing Home National Titles and More

The 2013 ASICS/Vaughan Junior and Cadet National Championships in Fargo have come and gone.  Here are some thoughts and observations on Team New York’s highlights in North Dakota. 

The singlets worn by Team New York at the tournament said “Dream Big” on the back.  Underneath that phrase was a picture of the late, great Jeff Blatnick.

There’s no question that Blatnick would have been excited about some of the performances put together, including that of a competitor he worked with at the Journeymen Wrestling Club – Jesse Porter.

Porter, who was a Section 2 champion as a freshman in 2012, didn’t get a chance to shine in the postseason last year.  The Shenendehowa wrestler suffered an injury and was only able to compete in November and December for the Plainsmen as a sophomore.

Now healthy, he made a huge impact at the summer’s biggest event.  A year after taking fourth in Cadet Greco Roman at Fargo, he went to the finals at 152 pounds in the same tournament, where he earned the silver medal.  Then, in freestyle, Porter nabbed a fifth place finish, running his overall record in North Dakota to 14-3 against top-notch competition.  During the Greco Roman finals, one of the announcers said he wasn’t that familiar with Porter before the event, but he knew now that “Porter is a stud.”  It’s clear he’ll be a middleweight to watch in the Albany area . . . and beyond in 2013-14.

The Champions

Jesse Porter wasn’t the only member of his family to stand out for the Empire State.  His sister Alexis Porter captured gold again, winning the 148-pound championship in Junior Women’s Freestyle a year after taking gold in both Cadet and Junior competitions.  She was joined on the top of the podium by Rachel Hale, who won it all at 121 pounds.

It wasn’t just individual glory for the women, however.  Team New York made history, becoming the first squad other than California or Texas to win the Women’s Duals at Fargo.  In appropriate fashion, the group captured the title by defeating the prior titlewinners, dominating the Texans in the first match of the championship bracket before topping the Californians, 39-17.

In pool play, the team faced California and decided to rest the starters for a big run at the crown.  The move paid off for coach Rob Hirsch and the squad.  Later in the day, the rematch was a completely different story.  New York won nine of the 12 bouts, including five straight at the end to seal the victory.

During that event, many contributed key performances.  That included Alexis Bleau, who was the only woman to earn trophies in both the Cadet and Junior tournaments, taking second and fourth, respectively.  It also included Kelsey Gray, who went undefeated in the dual portion of the event, despite not placing individually. Alexis Porter, Rachel Hale and Rosemary Flores also sported unblemished records during the dual tournament.  Flores collected an individual bronze as well, as did Destane Garrick.

Speaking of Bronze . . .

Speaking of bronze, William Koll picked up his first medal in Fargo when he took third in Junior Greco at 126 pounds.  The Lansing Bobcat just missed making the medal stand in both events, as he went 4-2 in Freestyle.  Another two-time state finalist, Nick Casella of Locust Valley, also made his debut on the medal stand in Fargo after grabbing seventh at 120 pounds in Greco.

Something About 220

New York had more All-Americans at 220 pounds than any other weight.   James Bethel followed up his undefeated run at the Cadet Duals with a third place showing in Greco.  He was dominant in his victories, with all coming by pin or technical fall. He was joined on the podium in that tournament by Garyn Huntley, a sixth placer coming off a 20+ win campaign for Oxford Academy as an eighth grader.  In the Junior division there was another 220 pound All-American – Rafal Rokosz of Southampton, who was sixth with three pins along the way.

It wasn’t just Greco.  In Cadet Freestyle, Mamaroneck’s Youssif Hemida won four matches by technical fall to capture seventh place at 220.  Looks like there are some candidates for breakout years in the heavier weight classes in 2013-14.

(Another upperweight who made his mark was Roland Zilberman, who after sporting a perfect record at the Junior Duals in Oklahoma, continued his hot streak with a fifth place medal in Junior Greco).

And the Middleweights Too . . .

In addition to Jesse Porter’s performances at 152, the middleweights had a number of strong showings, including at 145 pounds in Cadet Freestyle.  Jordan Bushey of Peru, Jakob Restrepo of Sachem East and Gino Titone of Connetquot all finished with 5-2 records in pool action.  Titone, who had a 25-5 mark last season, fell just short of placing.  However, Bushey, who came within one win of All-State status in Albany at 138 in 2013, was seventh in Fargo (with an injury default victory over Restrepo, who took eighth).  Look for all three to make a serious push for the medal stand at the Times Union Center next February.

Another Year, Another Medal

Pine Bush’s Chris Cuccolo is very familiar with the awards handed out at Fargo as he placed in both 2011 and 2012. This year was no different, as he picked up another plaque with a sixth place showing at 106 in Greco.  Alpha Diallo of the PSAL was also an All-American in that bracket, earning seventh.

In Summary . . .

So, in the end, a total of 25 All-Americans were crowned, with at least one medalist in all competitions except Junior Freestyle.

New York walked away with a pair of individual national titles and a team championship on the women’s side.  And every time a New York wrestler took the mat, the memory of Jeff Blatnick was honored for everyone in the Fargodome to see.

 

All-Americans from New York, Fargo 2013

Cadet Greco Roman

Jesse Porter, 2nd at 152

James Bethel, 3rd at 220

Garyn Huntley, 6th at 220

Nick Casella, 7th at 120

 

Cadet Freestyle

Jesse Porter, 5th at 152

Jordan Bushey, 7th at 145

Jakob Restrepo, 8th at 145

Youssif Hemida, 7th at 220

 

Junior Greco

William Koll, 3rd at 126

Roland Zilberman, 5th at 195

Rafal Rokosz, 6th at 220

Chris Cuccolo, 6th at 106

Alpha Diallo, 7th at 106

 

Women’s Cadet

Alexis Bleau, 2nd at 143

Jennifer Juarez, 3rd at 108

Vivian Vu, 6th at 154

 

Women’s Junior

Rachel Hale, Champion at 121

Alexis Porter, Champion at 148

Rosemary Flores, 3rd at 125

Destane Garrick, 3rd at 172

Alexis Bleau, 4th at 139

Yuneris Taveras, 6th at 198

Kim Cardenas, 7th at 97

Kennedi Eddins, 7th at 159

Mariana Olalde, 8th at 172

"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.