Wrestling is a passion for Jake Benedetto. It has been ever since he took up the sport as a youngster. It was a focal point for him as high school wrestler for East Islip and Islip, and then at the collegiate level with SUNY/Oneonta.
Benedetto carried that passion over to coaching. He was an assistant coach for Unatego in upstate New York for one season, coached two seasons at Bayport-Blue Point (one year as the head coach) and then coached the Longwood and Riverhead junior varsity teams.
And now Benedetto finds himself as the successor to Tom Riccio, a National Wrestling Hall of Fame inductee who became Riverhead’s varsity coach in 2015.
“This has been a long journey for me,” said Benedetto, 28.
Benedetto’s initial impression of Riverhead was positive. “I tell you one thing about this town and the people around here,” he said, “everyone here is super supportive.”
Lawrence Bishop, who was third last season in the League III Championships at 170 pounds, leads a squad that has a number of returning veterans like fellow seniors Hosea Blancarte (152 pounds), Dominic Bossey (132), Jared Cawley (126) and Ronan Cruz (220) as well as juniors Zach Merker (126), Katie Moore (170) and Sean Prunty (182).
Among the team’s younger members are sophomores Spencer Lucas (120), Michael Panchak (132), Romel Richards (heavyweight) and freshmen Xavier Moore (99), Cassius Johnson (120) and Victor Caba (152).
“I would say we have a good balance, just seeing my lineup,” Benedetto said. “I have a great group of senior leaders that are doing the right things in school, doing the right things in class.”
Asked what he asks from his wrestlers, Benedetto said: “I think more than anything, I just push for them to be good people and I can teach those lessons about hard work and goals … I don’t really demand wins and losses. I demand being the best you can possibly be.”
Riverhead’s first action will be Saturday in the Takedown Autism Duals at William Floyd High School. Similarly to his own wrestling days, Benedetto gets pumped up before the season starts.
“I don’t sleep the night before the first day,” he said. “I get so excited about the smell of the cleaner on the mat, the smell of the tape on the floor. I couldn’t ask for more.”
Shoreham-Wading River fans in the stands at Suffolk County Community College in Brentwood were chanting, “He’s a freshman! He’s a freshman!”
Connor Pearce, meanwhile, went about the business of winning his first Suffolk County championship last season. He pinned Rocky Point’s Rocky D’Elia at 3 minutes and 40 seconds of the Division II final at 113 pounds. In doing so, Pearce wrapped up the award for the most pins in the least amount of time — four in 10:23.
The unseeded Pearce also earned his first appearance in the state tournament, where he went 1-2. He was pinned by Walton Delhi’s Chandler Merwin 54 seconds into their quarterfinal.
Coming off his 33-8 season, Pearce (48-12 for his career) undoubtedly tasted enough postseason success that he wants more.
“He is a machine,” coach Joe Condon said of Pearce, who will wrestle in the 120-pound weight class this season. “He is a scoring machine. He trains very hard, very tough kid, very focused, very determined, and there’s no substitute for that.”
SWR also has two county runners-up in seniors Chris Vedder (29-12) and Ed Troyano (37-6), who wrestled at 106 and 120 pounds, respectively.
“They felt the pain of losing in the finals and there’s nothing wrong with that,” Condon said. “That happens. But they want to get back and they want to win.”
Condon said Vedder “embraces the grind. He just works, works, works.”
As for Troyano, who has a 91-22 career record, Condon said: “He’s just relentless. He’s offense, offense, always attacking, attacking. He wrestles year-round. He’s always looking for more competition. He’s not satisfied.”
SWR sophomore Jake Jablonski, who was third in the county at 113 pounds, is coming off an injury. Dylan Blanco, a sophomore who was fourth in Suffolk at 195, moves up to 220.
Wes Pase (132) is one of only three returning seniors. The Wildcats also have: freshman Craig Jablonski (99), freshman Tristan Petretti (99, 106), junior Chris Anderson (126, 132), junior Dan Dacos (138, 145), sophomore Sean Miller (138, 145), sophomore Connor Mullahey (140, 145), junior Juan Arango (145, 152), sophomore Connor Hughes (152, 160), junior Jared Sciarrino (170), junior Sal Livigni (182), sophomore Jake Ekert (195), junior Liam Daly (195), junior Connor Delumen (195) and sophomore Michael Scott (220).
While last season’s team had six freshmen in the lineup, this year SWR has “more experience and I think it’s going to make a difference,” said Condon.
As for work ethic, the Wildcats have that, too.
Condon said, “There are no athletes in the district who work harder than these kids do and I’m really proud of that.”
Photo caption: Riverhead’s new head coach, Jake Benedetto, is flanked by Jared Cawley (left) and Ronan Cruz. (Credit: Daniel De Mato)