WOONSOCKET â€“ Justin Switzer admitted his initial two years at Woonsocket High, those in 2005 and '06, were at the very least problematic.
He had wanted to compete on the Villa Novans' wrestling team, but he missed most of his freshman season because he was deemed academically ineligible. He didn't even practice as a sophomore for the same reason.
One April day in 2007 â€“ perhaps a month after the R.I. Interscholastic Championships and a couple of weeks after learning of the existence of the North East Elite Wrestling Club â€“ he decided to hop on his bike and ride downtown to the CYO Center at 142 Clinton St.
There he met the club's owner and director, Bob Gibbons, and fellow founder Jeff Ercenbrack, an outstanding grappler at his Utah high school who achieved All-American status at Brigham Young University.
Under the two fathers' tutelage, Switzer's life slowly began to turn around.
â€śWhen I met Bob, he took me under his wing and made sure that I was doing all the right things,â€ť Switzer recalled. â€śHe told me I had to study hard, and I had to keep my grades up. My family didn't have a lot of money, but he allowed me to train here for free because I couldn't afford a membership.
â€śHe took me to practices, camps and tournaments all over New England,â€ť he added. â€śI can't tell you where I'd be without him and this club.â€ť
Switzer, who said he wasn't very good early on, continued to improve under Gibbons' and other coaches' mentoring, and blew his own mind when he captured the state 140-pound championship as a WHS senior in 2009. That came courtesy of a thrilling 7-5 overtime victory over two-time defending
champion Colin Feeley of Hendricken.
â€śHe was a four-time state finalist and had won two titles, and I beat him,â€ť Switzer explained with pride and enthusiasm in his voice. â€śWe ended up winning the Most Exciting Match of the meet award in the finals. That was amazing, and it was all because of North East Elite and what I learned here.â€ť
Gibbons well remembers his chance encounter with Switzer, now one of four coaches in the club's system.
â€śLet's put it this way: Justin came from a difficult economical family situation, and when I first saw him wrestle, he was terrible, just awful,â€ť he chuckled recently. â€śHe could barely move, but we worked with him, he showed up to practice every day and steadily improved. He eventually became a state champion.
â€śI told him he had to live under my rules; he had to go to school every day and study hard; he had to work hard in practice, and â€“ as long as he did â€“ we'd continue to make opportunities available to him. That's just what he did.
â€śOf course, it wasn't all peaches and cream,â€ť he added. â€śAt one point, I suspended him because he pushed me too far, but my wife Sarsha overruled me. She said, 'He's coming back!' and he did, but I was going to do it eventually anyway.
â€śAfter that, he fell right in line; now he's one of my coaches.â€ť
Switzer, 23, also just completed his second year as Burrillville High's head coach while attending the Community College of Rhode Island. His eventual goal is to enter law enforcement.
It's an interesting, emotional story, how North East Elite came to be.
He and Ercenbrack had become friends, as they had met at youth meets around the area back in the early 2000s. Gibbons' oldest son, Jarrod, wrestled, and he had developed a relationship with two superb grapplers while all attended North Cumberland Middle School.
That pair â€“ Shai and Shoneil Lariviere â€“ just happened to be twins, and they showed so much promise, the two dads decided they wanted to further their sons' athletic influence with more seasoned mentors.
That's when they started making the 80-mile, one-way trip to the original North East Elite Wrestling Club in Enfield, Conn. They did so with Ercenbrack's kids, Caden and Taylor; the Lariviere brothers; Switzer; and Gibbons' two boys, Jarrod and Kyle, in tow.
Once there, all would train under Ralph Powers, one of the region's premier USA Wrestling club-affiliated coaches; Powers reveled in working with the Ocean State youngsters, and it showed.
â€śMy dad used to bring me and my kid brother to Ralph's when we were younger, and we loved it; he would take us all over the place to compete,â€ť the younger Gibbons stated. â€śMy father and Ralph had struck up a friendship, and we became members of that club.
â€śEventually, I guess my dad got tired of lugging us kids back and forth to Connecticut; he wanted to start up a club of his own in Rhode Island, one that would cater to kids from Cumberland, Woonsocket and Lincoln. He went to Ralph, who gave him some advice about how to start one. He also said that he could use the name 'North East Elite' as well, as long as we endorsed that club, too.â€ť
The elder Gibbons and Ercenbrack finally set up shop at the old CYO center's gymnasium, which they rented. The club began with about 10-12 young athletes, among them the aforementioned boys but also former Cumberland High greats Sean Creamer and Tom LaCroix.
â€śWe were driving to Enfield three times a week so they could develop their talents with experienced coaches; there weren't a lot around back then (on the club level),â€ť Bob Gibbons offered. â€śWe wanted them to learn how to do everything right, by the numbers and on the first time.
â€śUnfortunately, we thought (the travel) became too much of a drain on them,â€ť he continued. â€śJeff and I began talking about our own club, and Jeff had some incredible credentials. I mean, I never wrestled in my life, but he was a national freestyle champion for his high school and wrestled in college.
â€śI put up my own money, my name and my (business) experience to get this club started. He and I agreed on a lot of things, and I asked Jeff initially to lead the club, but he said his regular job was too much.â€ť
Without anyone to mentor the youngsters properly on the sport's nuances, Gibbons admitted he almost closed the doors, â€śbut Jeff saved the day. He built the club around Shai (pronounced SHY, which he isn't) and Shoneil (shon-EEL), Jarrod and Kyle, Caden and older brother Taylor, Sean and Tommy.
â€śWith him in the lead, we started up quickly,â€ť he said. â€śI had been a volunteer assistant at a Johnston club, so I taught the kids the basics, and Jeff all the minute details â€¦ Right from the start, we were teaching intense, physical, college-style practices with a lot of repetition, cardio and core strength work; we did everything we could to get them to the next level, and it worked.â€ť
Shai and Shoneil, already middle school state champs, went on to snatch four Rhode Island varsity crowns and one New England championship between them while representing the Clippers and legendary head coach Steve Gordon.
Shai took the state and New England titles at 103 pounds as a mere sophomore in 2009 and the state's 112 category as a junior the following year. He grappled as a senior, but couldn't perform at the R.I. Championships due to an injury.
He nevertheless was awarded first-team All-Rhode Island laurels because everyone knew he'd have won it anyway.
Shoneil, on the other hand, earned two more state titles, though fell just shy (no pun intended) at the regional meets.
Jarrod Gibbons earned All-Division honors in the 189 class while at Johnston in 2008.
Switzer joined that trio in 2007, and now all are coaching the club's youngsters.
More than that, because of everyone's intense love for the sport, the club has become a family â€“ in more ways then one. Bob Gibbons eventually married Sarsha Lariviere, both of whom had divorced from previous spouses, about five years ago.
â€śI had met Sarsha when I was volunteer coaching in Johnston; I worked a lot with her boys,â€ť Gibbons noted. When asked if it was love at first sight, he laughed heartily, â€śNo way, she hated me, so I had to win her over. The kids kept saying, 'You guys should hook up! Coach Gibbons is a great guy, Mom! Give him a chance!'
â€śI mean, they were little, only in the fourth or fifth grades,â€ť he added. â€śThe thing is, we all met as a result of wrestling, and now we're one big happy wrestling family.â€ť
Mentioned Shai with another laugh: â€śExcept for Kyle (Gibbons, Bob's youngest). Nah, I'm only kidding. We're all together because of our bond with wrestling. Our parents met through the sport.â€ť
All agreed the club wouldn't exist without â€śTeam Momâ€ť Sarsha.
â€śOur mother doesn't just help out, she IS North East Elite,â€ť Shoneil noted. â€śShe does all the scheduling for tournaments and our dual meets; she handles memberships, buys equipment, runs the social media we have, processes all the paperwork.
â€śHeck, she even cleans the mats after practices and other stuff in the gym, so we wouldn't be here without her,â€ť he continued. â€śShe puts up with a lot of our (foibles).â€ť
Nowadays, North East Elite representatives now attend USA Wrestling-sponsored competitions not only around the region but as far away as New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Delaware.
â€śBack when we just started, there was nothing around here for really good meets because there were no real organized clubs,â€ť Jarrod Gibbons explained. â€śYou'd have to travel 50 miles or so just to get a match against some good competition. Our dads used to tell us, 'You can't get better without facing someone who knows how to wrestle well.'â€ť
Back in March, two club members garnered state high school titles, including Narragansett senior Mike Gallagher at 170 pounds and Sebastian Dziadkiewicz of North Providence at 195; and Tolman's Darius Harrison took fourth overall at 152, while Woonsocket sophomore Julian Juarez placed sixth at 113.
Just as impressive is this: Eight others returned from the R.I. Youth Wrestling Championships in West Warwick with state crowns. They included Tyler Madirira, 11, of Johnston (5th-6th grade, 70 pounds); Tyler Shaw, 11, of Cumberland (5th-6th grade, 100 pounds); Spencer Fine, 7, of Cumberland (Bantam division, 64-69 pounds); Nolan Santos, 10, of Cumberland (Intermediate division, 80 pounds); Peter Ruiz, 11, of Central Falls (Novice division, 75 pounds); Nick Fine, 10, of Cumberland (Novice division, 85 pounds); Cory Grifka, 11, of Warren (Novice division, 90 pounds); and John Libby, 10, of Burrillville (Novice division, 105 pounds).
â€śWe also had three runner-ups and four third places,â€ť Switzer said proudly. â€śAnd, as a team, we won the Novice division championship.â€ť
The good news for North East Elite: It now maintains approximately 56 members of all ages, and they come from all over Rhode Island with some trekking from as far away as Narragansett and Hopkinton, Mass.
â€śWhat makes this club so attractive is we train all year long, and we go to tournaments all over the Northeast and Middle-Atlantic states,â€ť Switzer indicated. â€śWith the 56 or so kids we have now, they range in age from 5-18, and we're still accepting members, but we never turn anyone away for financial difficulties.
â€śBob gave me a scholarship, and it eventually led me to a state title, graduating from high school, landing a job as a varsity head coach and me being a better person,â€ť he added. â€śWe're all volunteers as coaches, and I know I want to give back to the club because of so much I gained from it. We want to help change other people's lives, just like Bob and others did for me.â€ť
The elder Gibbons almost teared up at what Switzer and his own children and step-children had conveyed.
â€śI'll tell you what, it's been a lot of work and sacrifice, a long road and a ton of commitment,â€ť Bob Gibbons stated. â€śIt's been a strain on my family, but also a joy. We've touched a lot of people's lives and helped them become not only better athletes but people. I think we've also done a lot to help the community.
â€śI'm really happy with where this club has gone; there were times when we almost said, 'Enough is enough,' but then you look into a kid's eyes and realize how much they need you, and you need them. I can't tell you how many people have come back to us and said, 'Thank you!'
â€śThat's why this club is so important,â€ť he continued. â€śWe're trying to get them to learn good technique, love the sport and be able to wrestle at the highest possible level for their individual skill level. Those kids doing what they did at the state youth championships, that's what it's all about.
â€śNot everybody's a champion, but they can still find fulfillment in wrestling.â€ť
The only real worry Gibbons and his coaching staff have at this point is finding a new venue to call home.
â€śIf that CYO building is sold, we're not going to have any place to practice,â€ť he said. â€śI've spoken to the Mayor (Lisa Baldelli-Hunt), and I told her we needed a new place. I also told her if we got one, I'm interested in starting up a (Woonsocket) middle school program to act as a feeder program for the high schools.
â€śAgain, we tell kids when they first come to us and say the membership fee is $60 a month, but if they can't afford it, we'll find a way to keep them here,â€ť he added. â€śI've never, ever turned away a boy because of his inability to pay. That's the way Jeff and I wanted it from the very beginning. We even gear and shoes for them to wear.
â€śThis is the best. I feel so good giving these guys the opportunity to learn the intricacies of the sport.â€ť
Perhaps his son, Jarrod, put it best: â€śMy father always preached that wrestling is a communal sport where everyone in the room helps each other out. Everyone's a brother, and we should promote good sportsmanship and a sense of good character off the mats. That's what we try to build in all of our wrestlers â€“ being the best you can be physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.â€ť
Anyone interested in becoming a member, or to gather more information, is encouraged to visit www.neewri.com or call (401) 943-1489.
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