Zach Tanelli, Courtesy Hofstra Athletic Communications
New York Wrestling News spent time talking to recently promoted Hofstra Head Assistant Coach Zach Tanelli about a range of topics, from the team’s loaded 2012-13 schedule, to the newcomers who could have an immediate impact, to the New York-New Jersey wrestling rivalry.
Q: Let’s start with the schedule. Hofstra has a lot of tough tests early, including opening with last year’s National Duals champion, Minnesota. What was the thought process when putting together this schedule?
Zach Tanelli (ZT): You can blame me because [head coach] Rob [Anspach] put me in charge of scheduling. We wanted to change our philosophy a little bit. With the way the NCAAs are structured today, you’re judged on All-Americans. We have a strong tradition of having All-Americans and an overall good team, but we know we can’t be complacent and happy with having just a few All-Americans. We want to be a top-10 team and to do that we have to be as ready as possible to wrestle the best. So our goal is to match up with teams like Iowa, Ohio State and Minnesota early in the season to know what we need to work on to be best prepared for the NCAAs. We’d love to go 15-0 in dual meets, but that’s not our main focus. The goal is to be prepared for March. We know this doesn’t ensure All-Americans by any means, but we feel as a staff that it will get the guys as prepared as they can be for the part of the season that matters the most.
You’ll be meeting two of the teams you mentioned, Iowa and Ohio State, at the first-ever wrestling event at Madison Square Garden. How does the team feel about participating?
ZT: It’s definitely exciting for us to be a part of the inaugural event. Madison Square Garden would like to do it every year, but it will depend a lot on attendance. I think it will be a great draw. We wanted to wrestle the tough teams and we’re getting the chance pretty close to home. We’re really excited about wrestling at Madison Square Garden and about getting our guys an early season opportunity to see where they are.
You also will be participating in the National Duals this year. How did that come about?
ZT: Honestly, we always want to be a part of National Duals. Last year, we didn’t get invited. This year, we’re happy to be a part of it. As long as we get the invite, we’ll be in attendance.
You mentioned the focus on March and having All-Americans. Steve Bonanno made the podium last year and returns for more one season. What was the difference for him in 2011-12 and what do you expect from him in his senior campaign?
ZT: Last year everyone surrounding the program knew he was capable of being an All-American. The biggest thing that happened was mental. He started really believing in himself and stopped asking questions. He really committed to what we were telling him and dealt with the adversity.
He was an All-American, he was proud and we were proud. But immediately after, we sat down and agreed – 8th place isn’t good enough because he can do more. This year, instead of being a guy [ranked] in the 5-8 range, we want him to be a guy in the 1-4 range and in title contention. He put in a good summer and we feel confident he can take that next step. A lot of it will come down to how he handles the adversity and pressure of being the hunted. No one will take him lightly and there’s a big mark on his back. I think he’s a kid who will step up to the plate and accept the challenge.
Justin Accordino also became an All-American for the first time last year. He was granted his sixth year of eligibility after missing most of two seasons with injuries. What are you looking for from him this season?
ZT: When Justin finally trusted and believed that he wasn’t going to go out there and get hurt, it really showed. And that’s what’s most important for him. If he’s consistent, the sky’s the limit for him. He’s a quick learner who listens well. Everyone saw what he’s capable of when he was healthy for a full year with a good year of training. We think he can punch his way into the finals this year rather than drop that semifinals match like he did last year.
Who do you see as a breakthrough performer for Hofstra this year?
ZT: I think there could be a couple, but I’ll start with [141-pounder] Luke Vaith. I thought he was very good last year. He had some solid wins over [former All-American from Penn] Zach Kemmerer and Billy Ashnault [of Rutgers]. I hate to make excuses but he had a pretty tough draw at the national tournament, getting [two-time NCAA champion] Kellen Russell in the second round and then Kemmerer, who had some experience at the NCAAs. I thought he could make the Round of 12 last year and after this summer, I think he will surprise a lot of people. He’ll definitely be tested right away with the schedule we have and I think he’ll pass. I’m looking for him to be an All-American this year.
Speaking of possible breakthrough performers, your incoming recruiting class had some of the top wrestlers in New York, such as 2012 state champions Dan Spurgeon (Plainedge) and Jamel Hudson (St. Anthony’s) as well as strong out of state talent. What have you seen from the class so far?
ZT: [Assistant coach] Dan Vallimont has done a great job on the recruiting side. He has done very well building relationships and reaching out to kids.
A lot of the kids were here over the summer, training and getting workouts in. I think the biggest thing isn’t necessarily the accolades they had in high school, but their attitude. We like the attitude they bring and feel strongly that they will pan out. There are 18 of them coming in, filling every weight other than 125. It’s exciting for the program.
Do you think some will see the mat right away?
ZT: It’s always hard to say with freshmen. Victor Pozsonyi [NHSCA All-American from New Jersey] will be right up there to start at 197. He’s had a really nice summer with us. Dan Spurgeon looks good as a 174 pounder. He has been around too and we’re really excited about him.
Then we have a newcomer in Taras Luzhnyy [silver medalist at the 2010 University World Championships in freestyle], who should be our starter at 184 pounds. It’s great because after Ben Clymer graduated, we thought we would have to start fresh at that weight. He’s a workhorse who has been here all summer and really wants to take care of business. As of now, he has only one year of eligibility and I wish we had more time with him. The biggest area of focus is obviously on the mat, but with his work ethic, he’s making the adjustments. We feel confident that by March, he’ll have a shot to be a high All-American. He brings a very different dynamic into the room and the amount of respect he has from the guys already is outrageous.
Another impact upperweight signed from Colorado, Dwight Howes (two-time Colorado state champion, FILA Junior Pan Am Games champion). Will he be at Hofstra this season?
ZT: Dwight is training at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. He’ll be spending this year out there, trying to get ready to make a World Team, and then he’ll be at Hofstra in the fall of 2013.
Congratulations on your recent promotion to Head Assistant Coach. What changes does the promotion bring about for you and in the coaching staff?
ZT: As far as responsibilities go, the responsibilities are pretty similar to what they were between [Head Coach] Rob [Anspach], Dan [Vallimont] and I last year. Everything I was doing last year, I’m still doing. It’s a really nice thing, though, to be recognized by our coaches, the Athletic Director and the leaders of the University. It’s an honor.
So, will the coaching staff remain the same for next year?
ZT: Gregor Gillespie is moving on to fight and Ryan Patrovich will be coming on as the volunteer assistant. We’re really excited about having Ryan on board as a coach. He had a great career at Hofstra and is an important part of the program.
Did you know you wanted to get into coaching after you graduated from Wisconsin?
ZT: Even when I was competing, I thought of myself as a better coach than wrestler. I knew I would be helping out in wrestling somehow after Wisconsin and I was fortunate that this opportunity arose close to where I grew up and I jumped on it.
Whenever I was home during college, I’d help out with my high school and the Edge Club with Ernie Monaco. I think I have a good sense of breaking technique down so guys can relate and understand and fit it into their style. There are some guys who are better wrestlers, but they have a hard time explaining the moves. Doing it and teaching it – totally different ballgames. The best coaches aren’t always the best athletes and I think that’s accepted in a lot of other sports, but in wrestling, personal accolades are taken heavily into consideration.
What are some of the things that challenged you as you went from wrestler to coach?
ZT: There were a couple of things. First, I think realizing that everyone is different and that you need to be patient. What motivated me isn’t what’s going to motivate every kid. You need to connect to each kid as an individual because at this level nearly everyone is capable of turning the corner and being successful, for the most part. There aren’t too many secret moves or techniques. It’s about getting people to buy into a system or philosophy and finding the buttons to push to make them get to their best.
Recruiting also takes getting used to. It’s a new experience to be confident and comfortable in a kid’s home. You’re talking to the kids and their parents about pivotal years in life and helping a kid go from being a young adult to a man. It took some time to get used to those types of conversations.
Also, I never really saw some of the things that go into coaching beyond the actual coaching – like the relationship building and fundraising. I guess I wasn’t expecting it. The wrestling part is easy – it’s enjoyable to hang out with the guys — lifting, training, wrestling. The other parts are challenging and probably go unnoticed. But the number of hours are worth it when the guys achieve their goals.
You’re from New Jersey. There is a growing rivalry between New York and New Jersey in wrestling. Was that rivalry in place when you were growing up?
ZT: When I was in high school, it wasn’t really a rivalry. But now, New Jersey has to worry about New York. New York wrestling seems to have grown quite a bit in the past decade. I saw some of that New York/New Jersey rivalry when I was up at the Adam Frey Classic. New York was always known for very good individuals, but is now well known for depth as well. I definitely get a lot more questions about New York kids on the national circuit now than I did even a few years ago. The state’s wrestling is heading in the right direction and I’m really excited to be a part of it at Hofstra.