That, in a word, summed up Riverhead wrestling coach Tom Riccio’s feelings about what his two newly crowned league champions had accomplished moments earlier.
“I know they’re good, but the guys they’re wrestling are ranked wrestlers in the county and I thought it was going to be a hard chore to beat them and they did,” he said. “They came through with flying colors, two inexperienced wrestlers, really.”
And he isn’t kidding about the inexperienced part. Wrestling is a technical sport where experience is paramount. Shireef Leonard said he never stepped inside a wrestling room before coming out for the team this season. Chris Debose said before he took up wrestling two and a half years ago, “I never even knew what a singlet was.”
As unlikely as it might have seemed, those two seniors provided uplifting tales Saturday, rising to the top of their weight classes in the Suffolk County League III Championships at Half Hollow Hills East High School.
Tears flowed from Leonard and others from the Riverhead camp after he took down Smithtown West senior Tim Nagosky in a headlock and pinned him only 24 seconds into the 285-pound final.
“I just went for it,” Leonard (17-3) said. “I just threw everything out there. For a big dude, I move surprisingly fast.”
An emotional Leonard, who had contemplated dropping out of the team just a week earlier, was swarmed by coaches and teammates afterward. Then there was an extended hug with his mother, Dawn, who never left his corner, even during the roughest moments this season.
“I doubted myself so much,” he said. “I doubted myself so much I didn’t even want to go on the mat. I didn’t want to have to deal with the losing. When I walked onto the mat, my legs were literally shaking. I was just extremely nervous.”
With three pins in 4:49, Leonard received the award for the most pins in the least amount of time. He had taken down Newfield’s Patrick Ganter and Smithtown East’s Christophe Alterio to advance to the final.
This has been a trying season for Leonard who, in all candor, said his intention in coming out for the team was to get fit. He hadn’t planned on finishing the season, but after winning his first match in 26 seconds, he figured he had to keep at it.
But doubts set in. In this season alone, he said he has dealt with a knee problem, a broken rib, a broken finger and has been dealing with arthritis in his elbow.
Then, after losing in the semifinals of the North Fork Invitational seven days ago, Leonard said he had a breakdown in the locker room. “I was really at the point, like Coach said, I wanted to quit last week because I felt that everything I learned was pointless,” he said. “I was to the point where I could barely stand up. I could not make it through a practice. I still can’t run.”
But his mother kept encouraging him.
He said: “She had never given up on me, even when I was down, when I was mad, she was like, ‘You’re not going to quit.’ I had a breakdown in the locker room last week and she was there for me, telling me not to quit, not to get deterred, to keep pushing on … She really pushed me to believe in myself.”
Like Leonard, Debose was seeded second and dealing with adversity himself. His left shoulder, which he dislocated two years ago, was giving him trouble. “It’s never been the same and sometimes during matches it will not pop out,” he said, “but it will get to that point where I just have to lay back a little bit until it gets better again.”
It didn’t prevent him, however, from claiming his second straight league title to qualify for the third time for the county tournament.
As is his custom, Debose was plugged into music via earphones under his navy blue sleeveless hoodie, dancing and juking as part of his prematch routine.
“He’s my flake,” said Riccio, who told Debose he had better be dancing after the final.
Debose was leading, 10-8, when he pinned top-ranked Smithtown West senior Jack Swanson at 3:51 of the 182-pound final. In his previous bouts, Debose (21-4) had pinned Centereach’s Robert Cooper in 1:13 and Centereach’s Mike Aguirre in 1:59.
With his shoulder “messed up” this past week, Debose said he focused on cardio work and it made a difference.
Debose looked confident before the final and put on a brave face, but behind that face was anxiety.
“Honestly, at first I felt scared,” he said.
Debose and Leonard are Riverhead’s 111th and 112th league or conference champions since the inception of those tournaments in 1957, according to Newsday’s Andy Slawson.
The triumphs by Leonard and Debose put a bright face on a day that had been something of a downer for Riverhead until then. Four Blue Waves, including senior Mark Matyka, failed to make weight. Matyka, who was to wrestle at 106 pounds, missed his weight by a half-pound, said Riccio. Matyka went 29-0 this season and finishes with a 111-18 career record.
Riverhead entered seven wrestlers in the tournament. Among them were junior Lawrence Bishop (third at 170) and senior Carlos Perez (fourth at 220).
Smithtown West won the team title with 228 points. Riverhead was seventh with 67.
So, what accounts for the ability of two relatively inexperienced wrestlers winning league titles?
To answer that, Riccio pointed to Leonard’s chest and said: “Right here. It’s called heart.”
Photo caption: Riverhead senior Shireef Leonard reached the top of the podium as the League III 285-pound champion. (Credit: Bob Liepa)