Wrestlers across New York state have two weeks to prepare between state qualifier tournaments and the NYS championships being held Friday, February 23rd and Saturday, February 24th at the Times Union Center in downtown Albany.
Section VI wrestlers have been busying practicing, mentally preparing, and scrimmaging with one another in the meantime. Lancaster hosted a handful of combined division practices over the past week as well as Section VI wrestling media day at the fieldhouse on Saturday. A very fun and informal scrimmage between the large and small school sectional champions is held and used for the winning sides’ bragging rights.
Also during this time, the state wrestling committee uses a formula to determine at-large or ‘wildcard’ qualifiers from around the state that didn’t win sectional titles but placed high enough in their sections and have enough power points to qualify for entry to compete. This makes for full sixteen-man brackets at the state tournament rather than brackets of only twelve.
I was able to catch up with a few coaches to discuss their individual wrestler’s success leading up to the state tournament.
Falconer head wrestling coach Drew Wilcox
Falconer wrestling has seen great success as a dual meet team as well as individually in the program’s history. The last state individual champion for the Golden Falcons came in 2016 with 182-pound Division 2 champion Jake Peru. Falconer sends four wrestlers to the state tournament this season in Dylan Ingrao, Dan Torres, Robbie Penhollow, and Corey Keefe. Ingrao, Torres, and Keefe all placed at last season’s state tournament. All four wrestlers are seeded #2 in each of their respective weight classes.
Matt: What does it mean for your program to send four wrestlers to the state tournament?
Coach: It should be an attribute to how much hard work these guys have put in. I think it helps they are close in weight and they’ve been pushing each other for the last 3-4 years. Last year’s senior class with Cameron Page and Jake Peru kinda got it snowballing and headed in the right direction. All the hard work put in is why we have four guys going.
Matt: What have these young men done on and off the mat this season to get themselves to states?
Coach: These guys have done an outstanding job both in the room and outside the room they are really focused on taking care of their weight, and in the room they come in and battle every day. We’ve had some great practices and these guys get after it from start to finish and that is why they are having the success that they are.
Matt: What’re your expectations for next weekend in Albany?
Coach: I expect that we are going to wrestle well. I think the guys are ready, I think they’re focused. I don’t want to put any numbers on it, but I think they are ready to wrestle and I think the sky’s the limit for all four of them.
Newfane head wrestling coach Miguel Pereira
Rookie head coach Miguel Pereira found great success in his first year at Newfane after working for many years as an assistant coach, mos recently with the legendary coach Matt Haberl at Cheektowaga Central. The Panthers defended their Niagara-Orleans league title and for the first time in program history three Panther wrestlers qualified for states. Andy Lucinski (99-pounds) and Zach Brown (152) earned Section VI Division 2 titles and Julian Nixon (182) was a finalist and earned a trip to states as a wildcard. The last Newfane wrestler to win a state title was 2x NYS champion Ryan Needle in 2003. On the end of the season, Coach Pereira remarked “I just want to say how proud I am of all of them. Just getting guys in the room, sending ten guys to sectionals, and having a great two weeks of practice.”
Matt: This is the first time Newfane is sending three kids to states. What does that mean for the program and where the program is at?
Coach: It shows our program, it shows the town, it shows the school that what we’re doing in the room and what’s been happening in the kid’s club and off season wrestling is paying off. It means everything to the town. Newfane has been traditionally awesome wrestling-wise. But now it has gone beyond that with having two sectional champs. It just shows that what we’ve been doing in the room is working.
Matt: What have these young men doing on and off the mat this season and throughout the year to get themselves to states?
Coach: I would say getting themselves in the right mindset before matches and taking care of their bodies. A lot of people go through the season and are not smart about what they do. These guys have been smart all year and they’re gamers. They practice hard and are ready to compete. They’ve been gentlemen off the mat too being pillars of their community as well.
Matt: What’re your expectations in Albany next weekend?
Coach: Wrestle hard. If they do that, they’ll be on the podium. I don’t have any personal things where I’m going to say ‘We’re gonna have three state champs,’ but I will say that if they wrestle for six minutes we should have three guys placing.
Matt: Since this is your first year as a head coach, what did you do to build yourself up to this point from being an assistant coach for Matt Haberl for a long time to coaching your own team and being competitive?
Coach: I think I would just say that surrounding myself with good coaches with good mindsets. The parents at Newfane have been supportive of what we’re doing in the room and on the mat. I think just talking to coaches more and more and understanding what is expected in your first post-season. As a coach, for me, I would say talking to guys like Matt Haberl, Drew Wilcox, Izzy Martinez, and Mike DeBarbieri …they’ve helped me out through the years, so I didn’t do it by myself.
Akron-Alden head wrestling coach Dan Klonowski
This is the first season of a combined wrestling team between Akron and Alden school districts after low numbers in Alden over the past few years. In many regards the Tigers quietly put together a very good season winning the Niagara-Orleans tournament but finishing second in the league standings. Akron-Alden made it into the Section VI Duals as the 6-seed and upset two higher seeded teams before losing the in tournament final to Falconer. The team is sending two wrestlers to the state tournament as at-large qualifiers in Owen Kissell (126) and Jacob Sarow (170). Only three Akron wrestlers had ever qualified for states before the Kissell, Sarow pair now in 2018.
“We had eleven seniors this year, so most of these guys have been starting since right around seventh grade” stated Coach Klonowski. “About eight years ago, we only had six guys left on the team. We’ve gone to [wrestling] camp every year and we got our guys into a lot of off season wrestling at Cobra and UB. This season we started with twenty-seven Akron wrestlers and three from Alden.”
This past off season the western New York Community suffered the tragic loss of a young man named Johnny Fiebelkorn who was a student athlete at Akron. Johnny wrestled for the Tigers and was a three-time state tournament qualifier and a class mate with this year’s senior wrestlers. “Johnny was, in all regard, the face of our program. He was the epitome of what you wanted someone to be as a wrestler: a hard worker, very fun to be around, enjoyed the sport. He’s a major reason why our team was as strong as it was. From seventh grade he was a 20 to 25-win starter so he got a lot of kids in his grade to try. Seeing his state runs early on was impressive for all of the other kids and inspired them.”
I was able to ask: In sending two kids to states, what does it mean for a program that is trying to make sure that it holds onto its identity and numbers that so recently was in danger of going away?
Coach: “It’s absolutely huge for our program that these two kids, who are leaders and captains on the team, to see their hard work pay off and it definitely goes a long way with our kids coming up through the kids’ club and modified wrestling. Its huge for our program and great for our town as well. It’s something good that people can cheer for. When they see wrestling they know it is something positive they can cheer for…it’s just great for our community and team. The community really rallied around the kids and team when Johnny passed as well. It’s an inspiration not only to the wrestlers but to other sports as well.”