WOONSOCKET -- Wrestling is one high school sport in Rhode Island where the public vs. private school debate holds no water. Public schools have won 29 of the last 30 state team championships in wrestling.
Bishop Hendricken sneaked in to grab a state title back in 2004. Cumberland then ruled the state in 2005. Cranston West won the next four titles before the Clippers returned to the top in 2010. Warwick Vets prevailed in 2011.
Back in 1999, Johnston High won the state title, proving that even smaller public schools can reach the top in wrestling.
The one dynastic wrestling program in Rhode Island was Coventry High, which won 17 straight state titles between 1982-98 and owns 19 overall since 1952. Bishop Hendricken leads the private schools with seven team titles. Warwick Vets is second overall with eight.
“I think success in wrestling depends on what kind of feeder programs each school has,” Bishop Hendricken coach Kevin Hennessey admitted on Tuesday. “It doesn’t matter in wrestling whether your school is public or private. You can take a good athlete and teach him how to wrestle. Any good athlete can learn how to wrestle, if he’s willing to put in the time.”
Cumberland coach Steve Gordon agrees with Hennessey.
“Feeder systems are the key,” Gordon said. “Coventry had a great feeder program for many years. I think Hendricken is the team of the future right now. They just won the freshman and junior varsity titles this year. We have a good feeder program in Cumberland. One thing that helps us is we don’t lose a lot of kids to the private schools. They seem to want to wrestle for us in high school.”
Lincoln High crowned a state champion two weeks ago in 215-pounder Nikolis Zacuis, a sophomore who learned the sport while wrestling in Craig Obara’s Lincoln Youth Wrestling Club. Freshman John D’Aloisio, who finished fourth in the state at 112 pounds, is another product of Obara’s program.
Besides its strong Middle School program, Cumberland has benefited from the experience some of its wrestlers have absorbed at the Northeast Elite Wrestling Club located in Woonsocket and run by Bob Gibbons, a Cumberland High graduate and the stepfather of the Lariviere twins, Shai and Shoneil, who won four state titles between them for Cumberland High.
“We have 102 kids registered in our club,” Gibbons said. “We have 34 ‘little guys’ and 53 middle school and high school wrestlers. Quite a few of the kids are from the Burrillville area. We take our kids around to tournaments sponsored by USA Wrestling.”
Gibbons points out that Johnston once had one of the best youth programs in the state. He cits the Warwick PAL program as top-notch these days, which explains the success of Warwick Veterans over the past decade when it has won three state team titles.
Club programs like Northeast Elite and Warwick PAL slightly overlap the high school season, which ended with the New England championship finals on Saturday night in New Haven.
“Our club finished second in the state youth tournament two weeks ago,” Gibbons added. “We are taking 18 kids to the Youth of New England Middle School championships this weekend in Lowell, Mass. Rhode Island is going to host the Youth of New England tournament next year.”