Winning the first county wrestling title in school history could not have been any sweeter for the Clarke wrestling team and coach Mike Leonard.
It was done in its home gym in front of a raucous crowd, clinched against a school that it lost to in a tiebreaker earlier this season, sparked by a couple of unlikely heroes throughout the day and led by a father-son coaching duo with wrestling in their blood.
The Rams needed a late surge to get by Seaford 43-30 in the semifinals before besting nemesis Cold Spring Harbor 46-31 in the final of the Nassau Division II dual meet on Jan. 25. The team’s previous best performance in the tournament was a semifinal finish in 2009 which highlighted a school-record 24-5 season.
“It’s beautiful, the perfect spot to have it,” Leonard said. “We came ready to wrestle the whole weekend.”
Clarke and Seaford were neck-and-neck through the first six matches of the semis before the Rams reeled off wins in each of the next seven on the card to put the bout out of reach. After the schools split the first six matches, John Bower, who normally wrestles at 126, started the rally with an 11-7 decision victory over Seaford’s Vito Valentino in their 120 bout and Jack Forte (126) pinned Nick Dicanio in just under two minutes soon after.
After a forfeit win and a 7-2 victory by senior Aiden Yurdiga (138), junior Chris Gregory posted a tight 2-1 decision win over Viking all-state grappler Jake Murphy in their 145 bout.
“He just wrestled the perfect game plan, which was to keep it close,” Leonard said.
Lucas Abbatiello (160) then pinned C.J. Minch for the Rams’ seventh straight win.
Star heavyweight Karl-Osmond Bouyer got Clarke to a solid start in the finals by pinning Cold Spring Harbor’s Reed Cooper in their 220 bout and the Rams earned two of the next three victories by forfeit before losing the 113-pound match. Up stepped Bower and he came through a second time with a 3-2 decision victory over Ethan Eonidis.
Leonard, who described Bower’s regular season as “OK”, credited his unsung hero for pulling through when it counted the most.
“He’s a hard worker,” he said. “He’s been wrestling all year long and he just started to take that step higher. He’s starting to believe in himself.”
Forte, Jordan Soriano and Yurdiga followed with their own victories and, three matches later, Lucas Abbatiello clinched the title with a 5-2 win over Jacob Bruno. It was a fitting win for the senior, who took two years off from the program because of football.
Standing next to the Leonard in the euphoria was his assistant coach and son, Mike Jr., who was a member of that 2009 team.
“I’m hoping we can keep it rolling with him more involved in the program,” said the senior Leonard.
The Rams traveled to Syracuse the following weekend for the state dual meet tournament and finished an impressive third, losing to eventual-champion Falconer in the semifinals.