Many casual wrestling fans know that Chautauqua-Cattaraugus Athletic Association Division 1 high school wrestling consists of some of the strongest wrestlers and finest coaches around.
That fact stood out Feb. 2 as three teams - Fredonia, Falconer and Westfield-Ripley-Chautauqua Lake - each took first place at its respective Section 6 Class Tournament.
Westfield-Ripley-Chautauqua Lake - also known as WRCL - took first place in Class B, Fredonia took the Class C title and Falconer took first in Class D.
Westfield-Ripley-Chautauqua Lake, Class B Champions
"I think there is some great wrestling in this area," WRCL coach Brad Rowe said. "Falconer and Fredonia are our two losses in dual meets this year. We went up against Midlakes which are returning state champions and powerhouses such as Pal Mac and Gouverneur. But right in this area, Falconer and Fredonia are right up there at the top. I think it's exciting for all three teams. We are always competing and banging year after year. When you see all three local teams standing on top, it is something to take pride in."
Class B from Lew-Port
WRCL's run to a first-place finish may have been the most intriguing of the three as it placed ahead of Lewiston-Porter, which was ranked No. 7 in the state. WRCL finished with 205.50 points and Lew-Port was right behind at 200.50.
"It was one of those things - the whole team-effort type thing," Rowe said. "Every guy stepped up and scored some points for us."
Rowe noted several wrestlers earned the team points with victories in the wrestlebacks.
Seniors Jeremy Gilbert and Cody Bird each had strong efforts for WRCL.
Gilbert, who wrestled at 145, finished fourth. After falling in the first round, Gilbert won his next two matches to find himself in the consolation finals. There, he lost to Kyle McGaffick of Albion.
Meanwhile, Bird placed third at 195. After losing in the opening round, Bird came back to win with a pin over Springville's Pat O'Brien and then won the consolation final match over Tom Springer of Amherst.
"Those two really stepped up and got to the next level for us," Rowe said. "Both went in unseeded and both placed. They had some nice wins along the way."
A big reason for WRCL's success this year was the merger of the three schools and the competition it created in practice.
"It was a huge factor," Rowe said. "All of us had quality guys from the start. You put them in the same room and add in the different coaches with their style and techniques, you mix it all together and you have a very solid team. I think the whole team pushed each other. As a team, as the year went on, you could see things coming to form. I think wrestling is one of those sports that no matter where you're from, there is that bond. But doing this, some bonds were created that will be life-long type of friendships."
When asked if the state will give CCAA some more consideration next year when determining rankings throughout the year, Rowe responded, "Absolutely. I think all three of our teams deserve some recognition. Our team finally squeaked into honorable mention towards the end of the year. I think hopefully by showing that we are at the same level as Lew-Port, we can get recognized. Falconer and Fredonia are right up there with the top teams as well. I would have to say both those teams are right up there with them."
Youngsters step up as Fredonia wins Class C
Fredonia knew it had a strong team this season and had a legitimate chance for the Class C crown. What coach Alex Conti didn't expect was the contributions he got from the underclassmen who had very little varsity experience.
Due to injury and other unforeseen events, Fredonia relied on freshmen Ben McKelvey (99) and Jovany Ruiz (106), and junior Jesse Walker (285).
"The opportunity for those three young guys, to step up and perform at the level they did was fantastic," Conti said. "McKelvey was in for an injured Steve St. George and Steve would have had a great tournament as well. Ben stepped up, and to get that sectional shield is fantastic. He beat the No. 4 (John Fiebelkorn of Akron) and No. 5 (Guiseppe Hoose of Southwestern), lost to No. 1 (Ryan Hetrick of Southwestern) and beat No. 7 (Robbie Pequeen of Akron) it was a fantastic day for him. He came in unseeded."
Meanwhile, Ruiz lost his first match of the day. In the wrestlebacks, he downed Sam Sparacino with a 2:04 pin and then defeated Joe Velez of Medina, 7-4. In the consolation finals, Ruiz lost to Lackawanna's Ali Shawish, 6-4.
"Because he is so young, it was just nice to see him taste some success," Conti said. "It was good Jovany had a great tournament and was just seconds away from being a third-place finisher. I was happy for him and happy for the whole team. They get behind the youngsters too. They were happy to see these guys do well. You can see how much the older guys appreciated the effort that guys like Jesse, Ben and Jovany gave so they could go out with a Sectional championship their senior year. I was so happy."
Walker won his first match with a 4-2 decision over Newfane's Casey Kubiniec before losing to No. 1 seed and eventual champion Matt Montesanti of Medina. In the wrestlebacks, Walker pinned Lackawanna's Mike Manganiello in 4:22 to advance to the consolation finals. There, Walker fell to Akron's David Case, 3-0.
"To come in as an unseeded wrestler and beat two different guys and almost beat the guy for third place was remarkable," Conti noted. "Like (assistant coach) Ross (Conti) said, 'That's why it's so encouraging to coach some of these guys because that's the smile that Jesse Walker had was immeasurable.' It was priceless. That was extra special."
Alex Conti added the success of the trio helped push the veteran wrestlers which was key to the team's first-place finish.
"These seniors wouldn't have won it without these guys stepping up," he said. "You see Jesse go out there and not give up, it makes it tougher for a five-year veteran to go out there and wrestle like a buttercup. It makes them battle as hard as these youngsters did."
As for having three champions from CCAA Division 1, Conti said, "I think that's the most exciting part of it. You can talk all you want about how tough your league is. We have a tough league. To see our first-, second- and third-place teams win a tournament, it was gratifying. I was really happy - especially WRCL. For them to win, it was extremely exciting. You have a team like Lew-Port, the state recognizes them as premier team - No. 7 in the state. To have our third-place team come through in a team effort was really exciting for me."
As for CCAA getting more recognition from the state when it comes to rankings, Conti says don't hold your breath.
"I would hope that the state ranking committee would look at more than just numbers on a page and records in a book to establish who they think are the best," he said. "It's more than just, ' I'm 15-2 and they are 20-0 so you must be better than me.' Look at who you competed. It's a long process. It's not the easiest thing. You need to look at more than just the final scoresheet. I can blow a team out. I can beat them 36-3 and people just think we were superior. But every match could be a one- or two-point match or a coin toss or a bad call by the ref away from an exact opposite score. I hope they would look at who is in our league and the fact they are true warriors. Do I think it will happen? I doubt it."
Falconer runs away with Class D
The Class D tournament panned out just the way Falconer coach Drew Wilcox had hoped it would - Falconer first, Maple Grove second, Randolph third.
"We expected to win it," Wilcox said. "That was our goal. Maple Grove finished second and they have a real nice team. (Maple Grove coach) Tanner Delahoy is doing a real nice job. They were the ones we were worried about."
Another goal Falconer had hoped to obtain was to have 15 wrestlers qualify for the state qualifier. What Wilcox didn't anticipate was having 10 wrestlers make the finals.
"We weren't expecting that many," he said. "To have 10, that surprised us. It's impressive. I talked to our kids before the season. I said we are one of the top teams in the section, but we have some powerhouses to contend with. We like competition. It makes everyone in our division better."
Falconer went undefeated in CCAA Division 1 dual meets under the first-year coach. What has made the team so successful is the way the team came together and the work everyone put in during the offseason.
"They all vastly improved from last year," Wilcox said. "It's a credit to them for putting in the time. I couldn't keep them out of the wrestling room during the offseason. They were always trying to get me to open up the wrestling room. There were 10-15 guys every time we opened it up and it's a credit to these kids. They want to be part of something special and they were this year."
"As a whole, we did good working together as a staff," Wilcox continued. "I have one of the better staffs around. Dan Morales, Paul Peru, Chris Fiasco and Red Childress, these guys are knowledgeable wrestling coaches. Having them in the room with me is great. Everyone found their niche. From coaches to wrestlers, from back ups to starters. I couldn't ask for much more. Dan Morales is my main assistant. My weaknesses are his strengths so it worked out great."
Wilcox was hard pressed when asked which wrestlers stepped up at the Class D tournament and throughout the season.
Kids like Tim Franzen, Zak Mata, Cody Dustin, Brandon Tebow," he rattled off the names. "I could give you 22 names. We had a ton of guys get better this year."
At the Class D Tournament, Kyle Blake had a dominating performance on his way to a first-place finish at 99 pounds.
Blake won his first match with a 17-1 technical fall over Salamanca's Kyle Perkins. In the semifinals, he pinned Holland's Vince Tripi in 1:13. And in the finals, he defeated Falconer's Rickey Griffith, 3-1.
At 126, Brandon Muntz didn't get much action on his way to a first-place finish as he pinned all three opponents. After it was all said and done, Muntz only wrestled for 6:14 as he had a :35 pin, 1:25 pin and a 4:14 pin.
Mata finished second at 132. Mata used a major decision to down Dustin Rhodes of Frewsburg, 11-0, and then pinned Portville's Steele Rajski in 3:19.
Kyle Ross placed first as he used two pins and a 2-1 decision over Cassadaga Valley's Billy Sischo to win the 138-pound division.
And at 285, Javen Newman had three pins in as many matches to take first place.
Wilcox noted a tough league schedule helped get his team ready for the Class D tournament.
"We talked in the beginning that we were going to have two big dual meets with WRCL and Fredonia," he said. "Our goal was to get to that Fredonia match undefeated and we knew it would be a battle. Some had us as underdogs. If you went through it on paper, it was very, very close. Our kids were confident. I think we surprised people who weren't close to the situation. But we expected to win that match and we did. We have a lot of good coaches in our division. Across the board, it's a well-coached division. That makes it fun. There is a lot of mutual respect in the coaches. It's exciting to be in that division because you could be sixth one year and win the next year. We could be near the bottom next year if we don't keep working because there is that much good wrestling in that division."
As for the question about CCAA Division 1 getting more recognition from the state when the rankings come out next year, Wilcox said, "They should. I will say with these three teams, there is no reason they shouldn't be ranked in the state of New York. It has to be a tough job to rank teams across the state, but those are three solid teams that deserve to be recognized. I feel they weren't recognized like they should have been this year."