Wrestling: Close friends become all-Americans together

Riverhead senior Ed Matyka (right) wrestling in the New York State Championships in February. This past weekend he placed fifth at Senior Nationals to become an all-American. (Credit: Paul Wager, file)
Riverhead senior Ed Matyka (right) wrestling in the New York State Championships in February. This past weekend he placed fifth at Senior Nationals to become an all-American. (Credit: Paul Wager, file)

As far back as they can remember, Eddie Matyka and James Szymanski were on the ground wrestling each other. Their fathers grew up together and the boys spent years training together, leading into their senior seasons.

“We’re really close,” said Szymanski, who wrestles at Shoreham-Wading River. “Eddie’s like a brother to me.” 

This past weekend, Szymanski and Matyka — a Riverhead senior — journeyed to Virginia Beach for the NHSCA High School Senior Nationals in hopes of capping their season with all-America honors. Three days after the competition began, Matyka and Szymanski both found themselves on the podium as fifth-place finishers in their weight classes after surviving a grueling run through a tournament that featured thousands of wrestlers.

“Our seasons pretty much paralleled each other this year, so it was pretty nice,” Szymanski said. “Finishing up with him was fun.”

Both wrestlers compiled outstanding seasons, winning league titles, earning all-county honors and then all-state honors for the first time in February at the state championship in Albany.

The final piece of the puzzle fell into place last weekend as they earned all-America honors. For Matyka, it was his first time finishing top-eight at the national tournament. Szymanski finished eighth last year at the Junior Nationals. His Shoreham teammate, junior Jack Taddeo, placed fourth at Junior Nationals this year, wrestling 145 to also become an all-American.

“Both guys wrestled a phenomenal tournament,” said Shoreham coach Joe Condon.

Matyka and Szymanski faced different roads through their brackets. Matyka, wrestling at 120, found himself against the eventual runner-up in the first round. It was a bitter draw, especially considering his luck in the state meet, where he had to open against the No. 2 seed.

Matyka was pinned by Anthony Rubinetti of New Jersey in the opening match Friday in 4 minutes 54 seconds. Matyka said he was leading the match 8-4 and had Rubinetti on his back before he squeezed free and put Matyka into a cradle.

“He threw me to my back and pinned me,” he said.

The loss meant Matyka had to wait a day before getting his chance in the wrestlebacks. And he needed at least four straight wins to get on the podium.

He bounced back the next day, winning five straight matches. His third win was a come-from-behind match. He trailed by three points entering the third period, he said, before rallying to take a 12-7 decision. The final match of the day, against Kyle Lindner of Connecticut, was tied 2-2 going into the third period. A back-and-forth final period ended with Matyka winning 7-4.

The next day Matyka dropped his first match, sending him into the fifth/sixth place consolation finals, where he pinned Ryan Burns of Clarence, N.Y.

“Last year I went and didn’t place,” Matyka said. “I wanted to this year so I was trying hard.”

Shoreham-Wading River senior James Szymanski (yellow singlet) will wrestle for the first time in the state tournament after receiving an at-large bid this week. (Credit: Daniel De Mato)
Shoreham-Wading River senior James Szymanski (yellow singlet) wrestling in the county finals in February. (Credit: Daniel De Mato, file)

After the state meet, both Matyka and Szymanski took some time off before getting back into training. The biggest challenge for wrestlers can be mentally preparing for the grind after the season feels like it reached its conclusion after the state meet.

Szymanski said he was determined to make the most of his opportunity.

“There are some kids that mentally aren’t in it,” he said. “I always stay pretty hungry after the season.”

Szymanski opened his tournament at 126 pounds with a pair of wins, sending him into the quarterfinals against a familiar opponent — Ben Lamantia of St. Anthony’s. Szymanski estimated they’ve wrestled each other 10-15 times over their careers.

“We’ve always gone back and forth in our careers,” he said. “He got the best of me this time.”

Lamantia pinned him in the second period, sending Szymanski into the wrestlebacks. He bounced back to win two straight matches, 8-0 and 7-0, before falling by two points in the consolation semifinals against Markus Simmons of Oklahoma.

“That one hurt because he’s really well known around the country,” Szymanski said.

The loss dropped him into the fifth/sixth match, where he won 4-3 against Armand Molina of California.

Szymanski wrestled down a weight from where he wrestled during the regular season. He said the last few days before the tournament presented a challenge to hit the weight, but once he did, it gave him an advantage over most of his opponents.

Reflecting on the season, Szymanski said Matyka’s come-from-behind win in the county finals in February was one of the “craziest matches” he’d ever seen. The tournament ended with Matyka as the Most Outstanding Wrestler.

“I was so happy for him,” Szymanski said.

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