The annual showdown between the Norwalk and Brien McMahon wrestling teams is a date both local programs circle in red even before the season starts.
For the last few years, however, the city rivalry which began in the 1970s has taken on a different twist thanks to the emergence of the Norwalk Mad Bulls youth wrestling club. Now in its 10th year, the successful program has just recently begun feeding both local high schools with some of its alumni.
In fact, last year, Norwalk High wrestler Sam White became the first former Mad Bulls wrestler to win a high school state championship when he captured the State Open title in the 120-pound weight class.
Which brings us to Wednesday night. There were no less than 10 Mad Bulls graduates on the mat when the Bears and Senators met before a large bi-partisan crowd in the NHS gymnasium. There were even two matches where a pair of Mad Bulls alums went head-to-head.
In the end, McMahon defeated an undermanned Norwalk squad 64-16 to improve to 7-3. The Senators also avenged last year’s tough 39-34 loss to the Bears, who, led by White and a few other Mad Bulls products, snapped a 12-year losing streak against their city rivals.
But regardless of which team wins the city championship and the Norwalk Cup that comes with it, there’s no doubt this four-decade rivalry has entered a new chapter.
“It’s nice,” said McMahon head coach Joe Santa Lucia, whose son, senior Mikey Santa Lucia, the Senators’ 132 pounder and a four-year varsity wrestler, came from the Mad Bulls. “I’m used to my wrestlers reaching a certain level in the three or four years they’re in the program. But now that level can be a little higher because they’re coming into the program with experience.”
Norwalk coach Job Fernandez agreed.
“We’re actually getting individuals now with mat experience when they get up here,” he said. “Especially because they typically arrive so well coached when they were with the Mad Bulls and that lessens the workload on us as coaches. Instead of starting from scratch with a freshman, we can extend their repertoire, something we couldn’t do previously.”
For years, Norwalk was one of the few towns in the FCIAC to not have a youth wrestling program. That finally changed in 2010 when the Mad Bulls started.
“But in towns like Danbury and Trumbull, all the kids from their youth clubs all go to one high school,” Santa Lucia pointed out. “It’s kind of unfortunate that Norwalk and us have to split the talent that comes out of the Mad Bulls. Imagine if we were a one high school-town. I would like to have a team of our wrestlers with Norwalk’s wrestlers.”
Of course, the flip side of that is by spreading the wealth, both high schools benefit from the Mad Bulls program.
That was evident in the 160-pound weight class where Artie Cocchia of McMahon and Norwalk’s Connor Gilchrist, former Mad Bulls teammates, wrestled one another with Cocchia scoring a 19-7 major decision.
“We used to wrestle all the time when we were with the Mad Bulls,” Cocchia, a junior who placed fourth at last year’s FCIAC Championships, said minutes after his victory. “It felt pretty good out there wrestling each other and representing the Mad Bulls. We were opponents, but there was no hate out there, all love.”
“We never said ‘team’ with the Mad Bulls. We were a family,” the Bears’ senior captain and four-year wrestler said. “Wrestling Artie tonight was awesome because we grew up together wrestling in the same room.”
“You had the same thing at 182 pounds,” Fernandez noted. “You had two young guys who used to train together with the Mad Bulls.”
In that match, freshman Brendan Gilchrist of NHS pinned his former teammate Ben Van Steen in 4:38. Another Mad Bulls alum, Ryan Gilchrist, posted an 8-0 major decision at 152 pounds while Aiden Donahue had the Bears’ other win by registering a pin in 5:39 at 138.
Besides Cocchia’s major decision, McMahon received pins by Matt Greco (113 pounds), Zavier Hernandez (126), Jonathan Jean (145), Michael Johnston (170) and Jake Seco (195). The Senators’ other five victories came by forfeit.
“We have some injuries and a few holes in our lineup,” Fernandez explained. “We graduated 18 seniors from last year’s team so we knew this season would be an uphill battle.”
But that didn’t take any of the excitement away from Wednesday’s intracity wrestling match in the eyes of the former Mad Bulls wrestlers on the mat, their parents, and anyone else in the crowd associated with the youth group. Like Randy Haus, the man who started the Mad Bulls 10 years ago and is still its program director, and Art Schad, the club’s only head coach since its inception.
“When my kids were little I used to bring them to New Canaan where they had a youth program,” Haus, who grew up and wrestled in Minnesota, where wrestling is huge, said. “I helped them out coaching, but I wondered why we don’t have something like this in Norwalk. I’d rather coach wrestling where I live.
“So I bought some mats and started the youth program. But then my kids quit wrestling and I had already bought the mats. But I love the sport so much I kept running the program. Then Art (Schad) came along and he became our coach.”
The two of them have been at it ever since.
“We had 12 kids by the end of that first year,” Schad, who’s originally from Red Hook, NY, where he also wrestled, said. “Now we have 70 kids in the program, including 20 girls.”
“And we have over 30 Mad Bulls wrestling on the high school level, not just here,” Haus added. “We have some of our wrestlers at about 10 schools like Greens Farms, Fairfield Prep, Wilton, Barlow. We even have a couple of kids wrestling at New York schools.”
“We’re starting to see the seeds we planted get to the top level. Sammy White was the first last year,” Schad said. “The key is we don’t rush them. We take our time and make sure they learn the right techniques. Eighty percent of kids wrestling start in high school, and they only have a 90-day window (roughly the length of the season) to learn. But we have them for six months and instead of four years a lot of them are with us for 10 years.”
Like Cocchia, who, along with his brother Jeff, a senior at McMahon, were part of the original 12 wrestlers the first year. Jeff Cocchia, who won by forfeit Wednesday night in the 220-pound class, was an FCIAC runner-up last year and has a good chance to become the Mad Bulls’ first FCIAC champion next weekend.
As the Mad Bulls club grew, so did its success. They won the New England team championship in 2017 and ’19 while finishing runner-up in 2018 by one point. They also had four individual New England champions and nine state champs, including three girls, and their 26 state place winners were the most of any club. What’s more, they’re sending 12 wrestlers to this year’s girls nationals in Colorado Springs.
The Mad Bulls have certainly come a long way since that first year when they trained at the YMCA before moving practices to the Norwalk High wrestling room, right downstairs from they were wrestling the other night. A decade later, Haus and Schad certainly have much to be proud of, just as they did Wednesday night watching so many of their former wrestlers in action.
So who do they root for with several former Mad Bulls on each team?
“We’re neutral,” Schad said with a laugh as he held both arms up like a football referee when a touchdown is scored, the same signal used in wrestling to indicate ‘neutral position.”
“We don’t know who to root for,” Haus added.
With the way the Mad Bulls are going, Fernandez predicts it’s not going to get any easier for Haus and Schad at future McMahon-Norwalk wrestling matches.
“I’m sure I can speak for Joe,” the NHS coach concluded, “when I say we’re both looking forward to when each team has Mad Bulls from top to bottom in our lineups.”