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Sports Desk: For these gladiators, toughness is part of the game

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03/02/2016 8:00 PM |

Mattituck:Greenport:Southold wrestling 030116

They are the modern high school version of gladiators.

Wrestlers are tough. They have to be, competing in the toughest of high school sports.

And it’s not just physical toughness, although that is vital. They must also be mentally tough, capable of quickly putting setbacks aside before stepping onto the mat again and giving it another go. They must be able to turn the page on disappointment.

They must also be courageous, and we’re not just talking about physical courage, although that is vital. A wrestler must have the courage to walk onto a mat in front of a gym or arena full of people, bringing out nothing more with him than his singlet and self-confidence. He cannot be afraid to fail in full public view.

And on top of that, there must be discipline. Wrestlers train relentlessly to give themselves a chance to compete against other wrestlers who train relentlessly. They must have discipline in their workouts and discipline in adhering to a diet in the continuous demand of making weight.

Not everyone can do all this. Actually, I think a relatively select few can.

And it was the best of these select few who made it to the New York State Public High Schools Athletic Association Championships on Friday and Saturday at Times Union Center in Albany.

It was my first time covering the state wrestling tournament, so I took a fresh view of it all. The Times Review Newsgroup managing editor, Joe Werkmeister, had covered the tournament the past nine years, which is pretty good. Still, he would have had a long way to go to match Newsday’s Andy Slawson, the Long Island high school sports historian extraordinaire who has been to the tournament every year since — get this — 1981.

So, I got to see firsthand what I had heard so much about. It’s quite a show. The competition is fierce. Every bout can be equated to a sectional final. Just about anyone, it seems, can beat anyone.

“It’s intense,” said Jack Taddeo, the Shoreham-Wading River senior who finished fourth in Division I at 145 pounds, one of the most competitive weight classes in the state. “This is the best of the best.”

And what a fitting way for Mattituck/Greenport/Southold to cap the best season it has ever had. The Tuckers fell short in their bid to send a wrestler into the state finals, much less have a state champion crowned. But just look at what the Tuckers have accomplished this season:

They posted a fourth straight unbeaten league season, with a fourth straight league title to go with it. They have won 30 consecutive league dual meets. They reached the semifinals of the Suffolk County team tournament, finishing with a 26-2 record. Their only team losses were by two points to Hauppauge, the Suffolk Division I champion, and by six points to Rocky Point, the Suffolk Division II runner-up. For the fourth time in as many years, the Tuckers won the Section XI Division II team championship (they had never won a county team title before that). Twelve Tuckers advanced to county finals and seven of them emerged victorious to earn automatic berths in the state tournament. Zagarino matched the best finish ever by a Mattituck wrestler, grabbing third place in the state at 195 pounds. Jack Bokina (113 pounds) and James Hoeg (170) were both fourth. Prior to the state finals, the Tuckers were honored along with Warsaw for being tied for the top Division II ranking by the New York State Sportswriters Association.

So, disappointed as they may have been about not producing a state champion, the Tuckers have a lot to feel good about.

“There’s some upsides, there’s some downsides,” Zagarino said, “but we can learn from this and get better for next year.”

Spoken like a true gladiator.

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Photo caption: From left, Mattituck/Greenport/Southold assistant coach Ronnie Rosso, the team’s three top-four finishers, Tanner Zagarino, Jack Bokina and James Hoeg, and coach Cory Dolson. (Credit: courtesy photo)

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