Section 1 wrestling had a record-breaking performance at last season’s state tournament despite having no state champs. What can local fans expect in the 2016-17 season?
The quality of wrestling in New York State is undoubtedly improving and Section 1 is doing an admirable job of keeping pace.
The standing of our section has improved dramatically in the last decade, especially in the large school ranks (Division 1). Section 1 finished third among 12 sections last season, behind only Sections 11 and 5. And they did it without one state champion, which means depth made up for the lack of a standout individual.
There were 17 local wrestlers who earned All-State honors in Division 1, which easily eclipsed the previous high of 12 in 2014.
“All I can say is that Section 1 has come a long way,” claimed Clarkstown South coach Brenden Rogers.
As I began putting together this year’s list of the top 15 returning wrestlers in the area — the lohud wrestling Mean 15 — I had dozens of good choices. And with 16 guys who have previously qualified for the state tournament, the final cut was based on who has been to the big dance in Albany.
Of those 16, only one has been to the state finals — Fox Lane junior Matt Grippi. Most of the coaches that I polled referred to him as the best pound-for-pound wrestler in the section, which is a high compliment.
After Grippi, there are several names that usually come up. Nanuet senior Connor Breit, Brewster junior Grant Cuomo, Edgemont senior Cliffton Wang and John Jay seniors Evan Frank and Conor Melbourne are at the top of the list, and each will enter this season with state championship aspirations. The same can be said of our friend from Dutchess County, John Jay-East Fishkill senior Randy Earl. But will any of them actually get it done?
That’s where it could get complicated.
“The large schools have top guys in the nation at almost every weight,” North Rockland coach Jeff Swick said. “Section 1 will have a very powerful state team, but to get on top of the podium, you are going to have to beat a top guy in the nation at many weights. So it will be tough.”
That’s not an exaggeration.
According to Intermat.com, there are six different weight classes where New York can claim one of the top eight wrestlers in the country. Three of them are ranked No. 1 overall — Eastport-South Manor sophomore Adam Busiello (113 pounds), Syosset senior Vitali Arujau (138) and Hilton senior Yianni Diakomihalis (145).
New York has become one of the better wrestling states in the nation, which has made winning a state title more difficult than ever.
“Winning a state championship is the hardest thing to do in all of high school sports,” Fox Lane coach Anthony Rodrigues said. “Especially with wrestling.”
Rodrigues has seen it first-hand with Grippi. He ran into Diakomihalis in last year’s 138-pound state final, who some consider the best pound-for-pound wrestler in the entire country. This season, Grippi will compete at 152, where Penfield junior Frankie Gissendanner is ranked eighth in the nation.
Some believe that Wang represents Section 1’s best shot at a title this year because there is no nationally-ranked wrestler standing in his way. He took third at 170 pounds last season.
“Cliff’s looking great,” Edgemont coach Pete Jacobson said. “He’s a very hard worker and very coachable.”
Wang is part of a vastly improved Division 2 (small schools) field in Section 1.
While the section has been top three in the state in Division 1, it’s been more of a struggle to crack the top five in Division 2. Part of the reason is because there are fewer D2 schools in Section 1, but the additional of Pearl River three years ago has certainly helped.
“D2 should have its strongest team in years, if guys stay healthy,” Jacobson said. “I’m feeling pretty confident about that right now.”
The Mean 15 validates what Jacobson is saying.
For the first time that I can remember, more small school guys made the final 15 (eight compared to seven from D1). Wang and Breit are probably the strongest individual performers, but both Pearl River and Putnam Valley had three wrestlers make the list. For the Pirates, it’s Jack Chesman, Anthony Malfitano and Sean McGarvey. And for the Tigers, it’s Satoshi Abe, Mikey Bruno and Kyle Sams. (Put Valley also has another returning section champ in Jared Eliopoulos.)
That all should add up to a strong group of state qualifiers from Section 1, both in the large and small school tournaments. We just won’t know if that translates into any state titles until late February.
“You have to remember we are now in the upper echelon of wrestling in New York State,” John Jay coach Bill Swertfager said. “We are now judged by a higher standard. We will find out just how good we are as a section this year.”