As I rode upstate to Athol Springs, NY with Monsignor Farrell Assistant Coach, Jason Bross, I was told the story of how the Lions’ coaching staff assembled one day approximately four years ago and looked to the future. With a talented, but still raw group of freshmen staring them in the face, the MF brain trust knew that the day was near that the Staten Island based school would again claim the hardware that had eluded them for nearly two decades. A lot of insiders felt that 2008 would be the year that the Lions returned to the top of the hill. However, having been left without the services of senior leader, Rich Benigno, due to unfortunate circumstances, the Lou DeStefano led Lions had to watch as Chaminade High School claimed their sixth consecutive Catholic State Crown. Since that day, every hour, minute, and second of the past year has been focused on one common goal, to win it all in 2009. With a core group of four returning champions, and six additional CHSAA State placewinners returning from last year’s runner-up squad, it there was ever a time to believe that the CHSAA State crown was S.I. bounded, it was now….
And today, at a little past 6pm, belief turned itself in reality. Led by five champions and four runners-up Monsignor Farrell had finally earned the right to call themselves the best Catholic league wrestling team in New York State. The blood, sweat, tears, etc endured over the last 365 has yielded a gold mine. And in this gold mine, was a community of parents, coaches, and overall friends of the program that were brought to outbursts of tears as they watched their boys realize their collective dreams. Trailing St. Anthony’s by two and a half points at the conclusion of the first day of competition, Coach DeStefano knew that if his team had any hopes of finishing what they had started a year earlier, the team was going to need to come out firing on all cylinders in the semifinal round….It would be an understatement to say that they did just that. Winning nine out of 10 semifinal bouts, the Lions, led by the efforts of seniors Tim Monaghan (125), Connor Hanafee (130), Kevin Hartnett (140), Antonio Sparaco (160), and Christian Psomas (171), as well as underclassmen Paul DiStefano (96), Vin Fischetti (112), Tony Carlo (145), and Ben Villaret (152), the Lions not only surged ahead, but created the kind of cushion that every coach dreams about. The Lions were in the driver’s seat. All that remained, was for them to finish strong and put an exclamation point on their title victory….Monsignor Farrell had gone too far to not see their title dreams come to fruition.
Fortunately, thanks in large part to the amazing clutch wrestling of guys like Paul Schianodicola (103), Joe Francolino (119), who each rebounded from tough losses to work their way back to third place finishes, the Lions had all but mathematically clinched that team title after the consolation finals. All that was missing, was a little individual glory for nine guys who at all times along this journey, had placed their team first.
But, in the funny little way that fate never seems to allow things to work out perfectly, the Lions would drop their first three title bouts at 96, 112, and 125-pounds respectively. This was a testament to the abilities of their opponents, as anyone who was in the same gym as I was, knows just how pumped up the MF finalists truly were. These three gentlemen did not lose their titles, they were beaten out for them.
At 96 pounds, it was St. Anthony’s junior, Chris Brienza, who became the first of our eventual five repeat champions. Considered a considerable favorite at the start of the tournament, Brienza did not disappoint. Demonstrating the fine form that left him just one win short of placing in the 2008 NYS Tournament, Brienza seized control immediately of his title bout against the freshman, DiStefano. With the lead having grown to a double digit margin, Brienza would utilize his strength advantage, putting and keeping his young opponent on his back for the pin at 4:26.
Two Weight classes later, it would be another heavily favored Friar wrestler spoiling the celebration for MF, as Grant Greene won a battle of super sophs, 16-5, over Fischetti, behind a plethora of takedowns and tilts. While the outcome may not have been what Fischetti would have hoped, he certainly did show that regardless of the match situation, he is a goer, refusing to back down or roll over for the former NYS DII finalist. With the win, Greene, who is expected to contend for the NYS title, erased the painful memories of last year’s final, where he dropped an 8-1 decision to Fischetti’s teammate, Connor Hanafee.
The Lions’ titleless streak would reach three, as Chaminade junior, Troy Sampson, who placed 3rd @125 in 2008, would utilize a noticeable strength advantage against Farrell’s Monaghan, scoring three takedowns to go along with an escape point to claim the title that escaped his grasp in 2008 by a score of 7-4. To his credit, Monaghan never stopped fighting, working so hard from bottom and the feet that he was able to earn a pair of stalling calls against Sampson. Even in defeat, Monaghan goes out a winner. If not for guys named Hartnett, Hanafee, and Sampson, Monaghan could easily have found himself as a multiple time Cath. State champion….For Sampson, the victory today just adds to what may be the greatest legacy in Chaminade wrestling history. The son of Chaminade’s first four-timer, John, Troy joins his father and his cousin, Andrew (3x CHSAA State Champion) as Catholic State crown winners.
The eventual team champions would have their first taste of individual glory one weight class later, as defending CHSAA State champion and future West Point cadet, Connor Hanafee would score early and often, building up a 9-1 lead before pinning his opponent, St. Joe’s Mark Emerson with 34 seconds remaining in the match. Hanafee, who will graduate as the program’s all-time wins leader, is also expected to make a lot of noise in Albany this year. With his slick array of attacks from all positions, he is certainly not the guy that you want to see on your side of the bracket.
Kevin Hartnett would pick up where Hanafee left off, hitting multiple dump attempts to the back to blow open what many considered to be the featured bout of the entire tournament. A battle of returning Catholic State champions, the last time that Hartnett met Kellenberg’s Andrew Pappas, the Farrell senior trailed for the majority of the match before eventually scoring in the closing seconds to emerge with the win. Such was not the case today, as Hartnett seemed to have his “A” game working overtime, scoring a 17-6 major decision. Like his teammate, Hanafee, Hartnett, who is rumored to be attracting attention from the ACC, is going to be asked to step up and score major points for Team CHSAA at the Federation tournament.
The winning streak would grow to three, then four, and finally five for the Lions as juniors Tony Carlo and Ben Villaret would join senior, Antonio Sparaco in winning the next three weight classes (145-160). Taking into account the titles won earlier by Hanafee and Hartnett, this means that Farrell pulled off the rare feat of crowning champions in six of the past six weights contested. If this does not constitute a murder’s row of wrestling of CHSAA wrestling, I am not sure what does.
Leading 5-3 following a questionable illegal slam call that got a rise out of the Farrell parents and fans, Carlo, like the bull that he is, dispelled any chance of a Brian Roger’s upset, scoring seven points in the final minute to earn the 12-3 major decision and punch his ticket to Albany. As much as this victory meant to the young man himself, I’d be lying if I did not say that it seemed to mean even more to his mother, who was seen weeping tears of joy following his son’s first CHSAA title…Having already gone down to the wire twice with Section XI/Suffolk County Champion, Anthony Volpe, it would be a mistake to take Carlo lightly. He has the potential to be the sleeper of the the entire tournament.
One guy who was not asleep, but certainly was relaxed and composed was Ben Villaret. Leading 6-2 after the second period, the Lion junior was pushed hard in the final two minutes by Kellenberg’s Joe Fiore, seeing his lead shrink to 6-5 following an escape and takedown by the Firebird senior. A Villaret escape would make the score 7-5, but Fiore just kept on coming, getting in deep on a few occasions in the final minute. But, as cool and collected as can be, Villaret never panicked, fending off each shot as the clock slowly ticked down to zero. With the win, Villaret became the last of the 2008 Champions to repeat. Described as the smartest tactical wrestler on the team by Bross, there is no reason to think that Villaret could not pose a serious threat to anyone on his side of the bracket at the NYS tournament.
At 160-pounds, senior Antonio Sparaco proved the saying that defense wins championships. In a rematch of last weekend’s NYC CHSAA qualifier, Sparaco repeatedly demonstrated superior counter ability, fighting off and turning John Palladino’s (Fordham Prep) shots against him to the tune of what I believe was a 9-1 major decision. Much like Mrs. Carlo a few bouts earlier, Sparaco’s mom rejoined in seeing her son win a Catholic State title in his final attempt. So taken in by the moment was she, that she stood up in the closing seconds of the bout and blocked me off. Therefore, Antonio, if you ended up getting the pin in the last five seconds, my apologies for not seeing it.