WOODBURY >> “Old guys, you’re down! 30 seconds!”…“Green don’t like old guys today; they’re ugly; they smell; and they don’t do anything for me!”…“Back on your feet! Shake his hand and tell him he did a good job!”…“That’s nice; now it’s overtime!”
Welcome to the world of Nonnewaug High School wrestling. Eight pairs of wrestlers scramble like it’s the last 30 seconds of a world championship. Three others stand by injured, ready to participate in exercises they can still do.
Head coach Dave Green and Assistants Chris Martinelli and Bob DeJoseph recreate a basic trainee’s first week at boot camp for two hours in a low-ceilinged room maybe a quarter the size of a basketball court, in the Nonnewaug basement, with dim lights and wall-to-wall wrestling mats.
It’s home to one of the most consistently excellent wrestling programs in the Berkshire League — often one of the best in the state.
Terryville is the defending BL champion. Gilbert and Thomaston have had turns with the crown. The Chiefs are always in the mix.
Why and how does that happen?
Green explains part of it to his kids again and again, drill sergeant style, through the last half hour of non-stop conditioning, this time jogging around the edge of the room with coaches in the middle.
“The key is to get the best out of yourself every day,” he hollers to the tune of their shuffling feet. “You know if you worked hard; this is the time to start setting your goals. That might mean making it through practice; that might mean doing two pushups; it might be having a better practice.
“You’ve gotta be the hardest working team in the school; that’s how it starts,” he says. “Don’t tell me you don’t have the energy; you spend all day running around tormenting your teachers.”
“We’ve got the best coaching crew in the state,” says senior Albi Cedici, who moved to Woodbury from Albania in time for his freshman year. “I tried out. I was terrible. They got me up. I placed in states as a sophomore and a junior.”
“My freshman year, I lost in the Class S quarterfinals,” says senior captain John D’Agostino. “I freaked out. Coach said, ‘it’s not about winning; it’s about losing while getting to the top performance you can.’ A lot of coaches try to trick you. You see the truth in Green.”
“We believe it because he believes it,” says junior Cain Hardisty.
Jogging moves into a sideways wrestling shuffle around the room.
“You’ve gotta see him!” Green roars. “Great job, Pedroza! (Ian) Pedroza sees him (his imaginary opponent in the shuffle)!”
“I transferred from Oxford,” says senior Julian Martino. “This is a whole new atmosphere. We really learn what we’re doing.”
The circle skips around the room, harder than you can imagine a skip.
“Get some power in it! Explode! Now jog backward. That’s how you get your power. You should be running now; don’t jog. Run in a circle (spinning forward); you have to have that awareness! Now drop step (down on one knee while running forward)!”
A coach follows one of the seniors (fifth in the state open last year) around the room, demanding his drop, then run. Near the end of the drill, he wrestler falls forward on the mat.
“I’ve played football and lacrosse,” says D’Agostino. “You can be a great player, but it doesn’t change who you are. When you get to the top levels of wrestling, it changes you. You’ve got to do what’s right.”
“Wrestling makes you try harder,” says senior Yuri Gulak.
The circle alternates sprints and jogs.
“If you’re lazy here, here’s where you’re going to lose the match,” shouts Green. “It’s third period and you’re tired.”
“If you work as hard as you can, winning is going to come with it,” explains D’Agostino.
“Coach says we’re not trying to beat bad wrestlers; we’re trying to beat the best wrestlers,” says Pedroza.
“He says if you’re not getting taken down in practice, you should try some new moves,” says Martino.
“We have some small Berkshire League programs, but individual guys are placing high in states from them,” says Green, who has 22 wrestlers this year. “As a league, I think it does the best it can with what it has; it pushes us. We often win by forfeit, but we always say it’s only about the matches we win. How did we do on the mat?”
How does he keep the numbers up at Nonnewaug?
“We’re all in the building. We build connections and camaraderie,” says Green. “And we have a mat room. They know, as hard and brutal as our practices are, it’s a safe haven.
“But we also know, as important as wrestling is to us, it’s just a part of their day.”
And yet, it can be the most important part.
“It’s one-on-one, no excuses,” says Green. “It’s so hard and it takes so much commitment and sacrifice…but it becomes part of you. We love seeing the kids grow.