PHILADELPHIA – After three grueling days of competition, heart attack moments, setbacks, incredible determination, and persistence in spite of the ever present obstacles, two Hofstra Pride wrestlers emerged from the cheers and hollers of Philadelphia with All-American honors in the 2011 championships. Senior Lou Ruggirello captured a 7th place finish at the 133lbs weight class, and junior PJ Gillespie returned with an 8th place finish at 165lbs.
With attention and emotions lavished on the finalists, It’s easy to lose sight of the enormity of All-American honors. Rested for a full day after two grueling days of competition, the finalists make the accomplishment look effortless with big smiles, full of confidence, and a bounce in their step, but let’s put this moment into perspective.
To even become eligible for this competition, the athlete endured the rigors of a successful high school career that for most began in elementary school, kept up the grades, the homework, term papers, mid-terms, final exams, the weight loss and management, strength and conditioning training, the exhausting practices, the setbacks, the injuries, the surgeries and rehabilitation, and finally securing a birth with a successful conference tournament.
It’s exhausting thinking about it, and if you asked the coaches and athletes they could add many more to the list, enough to make your jaw drop to the floor. Once they got here, they endured 3 days of some of the fiercest competition to emerge the top 8 of 33 competitors. These are the few, the proud; these are Division I Wrestling All-Americans.
Ruggirello, no stranger to the excitement and the heartbreak, had been on the edge of AA honors twice before. Losing in the round of 12 to Jim Kennedy of Illinois by a 5-2 decision in 2009 and to Nick Fanthrope of Iowa State by a 5-1 margin in 2008, he faced Tony Ramos of perennial powerhouse Iowa Hawkeyes for his final opportunity. Commenting on the moment Ruggirello said, “this was my last shot. Of course, it’s nerve racking, but I tried to push the nerves aside and get excited about it and have fun.”
Ruggirello went ahead early in the match on a takedown and back points for a 4-0 lead. Suffering a blow to the nose, which actually broke it, Ruggirello defended a late third period onslaught as his lead melted away but survived to secure the victory with an 8-7 decision. “It felt great. I got stopped in the round of 12 too many times, and it felt good to get out of that,” said Ruggirello.
Once again for 7th place honors, Ruggirello saw his wide margin disintegrate when Futrell of Illinois reversed him off a tilt hold and converted the reversal for 3 back points. “I thought I was getting back points. I got caught. I stayed in that position a little longer than I should have,” said Ruggirello. When the final whistle blew, Ruggirello won 9-6 for a 7th place finish. “Wrestling is a tradition in my family. It feels great to finally get to AA.”
On Gillespie’s third trip to the big dance, he was determined to ply the lessons of the season. “[During the season] I wasn’t executing my offense as well as I would have liked. I had nothing to lose. I may as well give it everything I’ve got in my bag of tricks,” said Gillespie of his approach going into the tournament.
This weekend New York fans familiar with Gillespie’s offense witnessed the skills that made him 4-times all New York state and 1-time champion. A combination of shrugs, snap and spin behinds, and a lethal inside leg single made the difference in his weekend’s performance.
The amazing thing at the college level, though, is how much work it requires to finish a takedown. In his first bout with sixth seed Dallas Bailey of Oklahoma State, his inside side single made Bailey’s defense look to have more holes than a slice of Swiss Cheese, but penetrating was only 10% of the battle. Each attack required 20 or 30 seconds of scramble to convert for two. Gillespie said of the difference, “The guy will defend it, but if you get him tired, if I keep going for it, eventually I’m going to get it.”
After a 2-1 decision loss to eventual runner-up Tyler Caldwell of Oklahoma in the quarterfinals, Gillespie dropped into the round of 12 on the edge of All-American honors. A win over Stephen Burak of Penn would punch his ticket for the parade of champions. Early in the first, Gillespie converted a takedown for five points. “I kept the pace up. I knew when I got the first five point move, I wasn’t going to coast, but it was a nice lead to sit on,” said Gillespie.
Gillespie defeated Burak just short of a major decision by the score of 11-4. “It was just wrestling the whole 7 minutes, not stopping at any point, not even on the line or anything,” said Gillespie of the victory.
After dropping a 3-0 decision for seventh place to Brandon Hatchett of Lehigh, Gillespie said of his weekend’s performance, “It feels good except for that last loss.”
On the team’s performance this weekend, head coach Tom Shifflet said, “I’m proud of the team, proud of the program. It caps a really nice year for Hofstra wrestling. They had a smile on their face when they made the tournament. Some of these guys had a smile on their face when they became AA. As a coach, it makes you proud. That’s why you’re in this sport. That’s why you do what you do. I’m happy we were able to accomplish what we set out to this year.”
After a long season, the first thought on many wrestler’s minds is food. “So what’s on the menu?” I asked after his last bout of the season. “A burger and fries,” said Gillespie. “Where?” “Wendy’s, I love Wendy’s.” The cycle begins anew.