Youth Wrestling Kicks Off Season With New Home Gym And Aspirations For More Championships
In the gymnasium on the bottom floor of Edmond Town Hall, there are dozens of youth athletes jumping rope, warming up, then tangling on the mats. It’s preseason practice time for the upcoming Newtown Youth Wrestling Association (NYWA) season, and these late November nights are a time for hard work in practice that the participants hope will pay off in the form of championships later this winter and, perhaps, more titles once they move on to the high school level in the years to come.
The program has 99 wrestlers, including 40 newcomers, as the young grapplers gear up for the dual meet and tournament season, which starts in December. NYWA President Tom Maurath said program officials are excited about the move to their new home at Town Hall.
The youngest participants, in kindergarten and first and second grades, who are learning about wrestling and building basic skills, are called “Little Hammers,” Maurath said.
“What we try to do with these guys is teach them the beginning of wrestling, to teach them to really love the sport,” Maurath said.
Then there are two teams for the program participants in grades 3-8: The Elite Travel Team and Town Team. The Elite team competes out of state, against tough competition from Atlantic City, N.J. to Nashua, N.H. The Town Team competes locally against the likes of Brookfield, Bethel, and Pomperaug, for example, with weekend tournaments throughout the state. Maurath said the program strives to get the Town Team members at a high level by taking on tough competition as the wrestlers progress.
There is incentive to compete in optional weekend tourneys. Participants have to earn their team sniglets (one-piece wrestling uniforms) by competing in two weekend tournaments. Once they do so, the team members are presented with their sniglets during a mini ceremony during practice.
“It makes it a big deal to wear blue,” Maurath said.
With its nearly 100 competitors, the Newtown program is the largest community-based wrestling organization not only in the state, but in all of New England, the program’s president said.
The coaching staff is led by former Newtown High School Coach Chris Bray and James Monroe, who lead the Travel Team, as well as Curtis Urbina and Corey Fisher, who head the Town Team and Little Hammers.
Coaches Monroe, Fisher, Matt Gonzalez, Andrew Sayers, Joe Zeller, Mike Long, Tom Long, and Alex Stavola, all wrestled in the youth and/or high school program in town. Maurath said these coaches are paying it forward to help develop the next generation of Newtown wrestlers.
“It’s great working with the kids, just seeing them learn the moves as the beginning of the season. They pick it up so quickly,” said Fisher, adding that the wrestlers improve so much that they contend for and win championships by the end of the winter.
Urbina said the newer wrestlers are learning about respecting their coaches as much as their parents or teachers and keeping their attention on what they are doing in addition to learning the basics of wrestling.
Maurath said that in an early preseason practice, Urbina pretended he had a video game controller and was dictating the moves the young wrestlers performed on the mats. “The kids’ focus went to 110 percent. He’s got a way to really connect with these young guys,” Maurath said.
“It’s really about the discipline and focus for them,” Urbina said. “The best part is watching their first match because that’s when it kicks in. That’s what I call the moment of truth.”
A lot of wrestlers get dominated on the mat their first time out, Urbina added. They have to bounce back, show up for practice, and keep working at it, he added.
The older wrestlers build on basic skills and learn new moves to improve their game on the mat. At the same time, they are also honing mental skills first absorbed at a younger age in the program.
“You can learn how to win, and you can learn how to lose — and you can’t blame anyone else because it’s only you and your opponent out there,” said Kenna Gioffre, a seventh grader in his sixth year wrestling in the program.
“We try to teach self-discipline, motivation, and how to deal with adversity,” Maurath said. “When they come off the mat, we want to not be able to tell if a wrestler won or lost.”
Maurath said that a main objective, at the end of the day, is to get participants ready to wrestle at the high school and eventually collegiate level.
“You see these kids grow so much,” said Bray, adding that: “the ultimate goal down the line is to be come a high school state champion.”
The Newtown High team has had tremendous success, in large part due to the experience wrestlers gain throughout the years leading up to high school, with many weight division championships and some team titles and runner-up finishes in recent years, including a South-West Conference championship last year.
At the youth level, wrestling shines. Last year was the first in the history of the program in which both the youngest grapplers grouped together and won the Western Connecticut Elementary team title and the older wrestlers came together and captured the Middle School championship.
Newtown is looking to repeat its Western Connecticut League championships and pick up with more individual accomplishments that were met last winter, Maurath said.
Last season, the youth program had 125 individual, weight class tournament champions, 18 Western Connecticut champions, 43 Western Connecticut place winners, 34 state championship qualifiers, five Connecticut state champions, 18 Connecticut place winners, two New England champions, nine New England place winners, and a trio of All Americans.
“I think we have a lot of potential in the room,” Bray said.
But win or lose, there is reason there is a reason the coaches might not know without watching a match if their wrestler came out on top or not.
“It’s fun competing with other people and your friends,” notes eighth grader Fisher Stites, who is in his ninth year wrestling in the program.