Wantagh High School’s varsity wrestling team is currently undefeated, at 21-0, with three top-ranked wrestlers in Nassau County’s Division I, and six others ranked in the top six in their respective weight classes. New York Wrestling News and the New York Sportswriters Association have named Wantagh the No. 1 high school wrestling program in the state.
The Wantagh squad finished its regular-season dual meet schedule with a 44-30 win over Mineola on Jan. 15, and is preparing for the county championships at W.T. Clarke High School in Westbury this weekend.
Warriors head coach Paul Gillespie, who has been the head coach at Wantagh since 2007 after more than 30 years at Long Beach High, has notched roughly 500 wins in his coaching career — not that he’s counting. The state record for coaching wins, 700, belongs to John Grillo of Holley High School, near Rochester, but Gillespie, a member of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, insists that he isn’t focused on breaking it.
“I’m too busy to think about records,” Gillespie said when asked about Grillo’s mark. “We’ve got to just take it one match at a time, and focus on that. Counties are next. We can’t look past anyone. That’s not how we got here.”
Gillespie’s talented group of grapplers has adopted that mindset. Led by senior captains Josiah Encarnacion, Matt Rogers, Joel Russo and Anthony Grogan, the Warriors have been outclassing their competition since early December.
Encarnacion, who has committed to wrestling at the University of Virginia starting next year, is ranked first in Nassau County in the 120-pound class, and is aiming for his fourth career county championship. He is also a two-time high school All-American.
Rogers will go into the county championship this weekend at 182 pounds. He is ranked first in the class not only in the county, but also in the state. He made it as far as the round of 12 — the “blood round” — in the national high school championships a year ago, where, with one more win, he would have been named a high school All-American. He will wrestle at the U.S. Naval Academy starting this fall.
Matt’s brother, sophomore Ben Rogers, was named an All-American as a freshman last season. Ben is ranked first in the county at 138 pounds.
Russo and Grogan, both ranked in the top five in their respective weight classes, 152 and 170 pounds, are looking to win their first county titles in their final season under Gillespie.
Gillespie is well aware of how impressive his seniors have been this year, but he said he was just as excited about the future of the program. “I think that our next two years will be even better than this year,” he said. “The rest of the kids are all underclassmen, and we have some real, real special kids.”
He enthusiasm was obvious as he spoke about a pair of eighth-graders, 99-pound Joseph and 106-pound Anthony Clem, brothers who are “year-round guys,” as Gillespie described them. “They go all over the country in the offseason, working year-round to get better,” he said. “They’re two of the best eighth-graders I’ve ever had.”
Joseph Clem is already ranked fourth in the county at his weight heading into championship weekend.
Eighth-grader Jesse Vanordon, who earned All-County honors last year as a seventh-grader, at 120 pounds, is currently ranked fourth at 126 pounds. “He’s going to be on the national level soon,” Gillespie said, adding, “All these guys will. They’re exceptional talents.”
Gillespie’s freshmen are keeping pace as well. Thomas Bonasera is ranked fifth at 113 pounds, while Ryan Arbeit is sixth, at 106 pounds.
“I think it’s great to have wrestlers like this who are not only hard workers but great kids,” Gillespie said. “It’s a credit to the youth program.” Wantagh’s youth wrestling program, which accepts children as young as 5, is run by Ray Hanley Sr., who will join Gillespie in the Hall of Fame when he is inducted later this year.
“Although we’re ranked first in the state right now, we have to stay focused on what’s next,” Gillespie said. “Every time we come into the wrestling room, the county title is our first focus. Then a state title as a team.”
After that, wrestlers who qualify will head to Virginia Beach, Va., to compete in the 31st annual National High School Wrestling Championships in late March. A few of the eighth-graders, who are ranked in the top 15 nationally, hope to compete in a pool of roughly 120 wrestlers at the national middle school tournament in Virginia Beach the day before.
But the immediate priority is the county meet, where the Warriors know that their competitors won’t just roll over because of Wantagh’s state ranking. “We always have a target on our back,” Gillespie said. “Other teams always want to be the ones to beat us, and we’re working hard to make sure we’re ready for them.”