Grassroots wrestling at middle school level
José E. Valenzuela is not the first wrestling coach to try to expand his sport across Boston public schools, but his grassroots efforts to build a wrestling league for Bostons public high schools offers a fresh approach to an unfinished puzzle.
Its definitely not for lack of effort, the executive director and founder of Boston Youth Wrestling said of the citys lack of wrestling infrastructure in the public schools. There are a lot of coaches that have done pretty Herculean things on their own for decades; other coaches have tried to start a city league or tournaments around the 80s or early 90s.
There have been fits and starts in the past. Its not like were doing something new here. But I feel like the efforts have always been focused on creating something from the top rather than the bottom.
The 26-year-old eighth-grade history teacher at TechBoston Academy at the Dorchester Education Complex said hes convinced that more high school teams in the city cant be created until more middle schools not only show an interest in the sport but are successful at wrestling.
The Jamaica Plain native, who wrestled at Latin School and Williams College, started a middle school wrestling program at TechBoston three winters ago and expanded it to the schools high school students this year for the first time. Next season, the school will become just the third Boston public school behind Boston Latin and the Josiah Quincy Upper School to have a varsity wrestling program.
On Tuesday, Boston Youth Wrestling, which hopes to collect its 501(c)(3) status this summer, hosted its first annual Boston Middle School Spring Wrestling Tournament at the Dever McCormack Gymnasium. The program also launched its citywide youth wrestling club on Thursday in partnership with Boston Center for Youth and Families and the Boston Scholar Athlete Program. The club is free for students in grades 6 through 12 and provides access to wrestling coaches and academic tutors.
Boston Youth Wrestling has also works with wrestling programs at the Washington Irving and John W. McCormack middle schools. (The Fredrick Middle School has also had a program for the last six years independent of Boston
Youth Wrestling). Boston Youth Wrestlings partnership with Citizens Schools has helped provide resources, mats, equipment, coaches and shoes.
We have at least full commitments or partial commitments [from Citizens Schools] to support teams next year in the fall or winter, Valenzuela said. That was our goal, to show interest and that kids could be successful doing it in a short amount of time. Hopefully [Citizens Schools] would see that and want to continue for next year. Were excited they said yes, verbally.
The program started with just five students three years ago and has grown to about 30 this season.
We didnt have any mats, we didnt have any equipment, Valenzuela said of the first year. We transported kids back and forth to the Fredrick to work out.
This year the program got a nearly new set of mats from the Burke High school, which ran a wrestling program for half a season before it folded, Valenzuela said.
But while Burke didnt have any luck convincing high school students to stick with the sport, Valenzuela said he hasnt had any problem selling it to younger athletes.
For middle school kids I dont feel like [selling it to them] is a challenge at all, he said. A lot of kids have been doing the sport since they were little kids with their brothers, sisters and cousins. They understand kind of the concept of grappling even if they are not good wrestlers at all. If you tell them they can get into a room and wrestle that sounds cool to them.
Joscard Lucas, a sixth grader at the McCormack middle school who started wrestling in April, said he didnt have a hard time catching onto the sport because his coaches walked him through the fundamentals.
Each time we dont do stuff well they just take you and help you get it right step-by-step until you get it right, said Lucas, who mostly played football, basketball and soccer before he started wrestling. Wrestling is different from basketball and soccer and football football is similar to wrestling; in football you tackle and in wrestling you kind of do that but you use other methods to take down people.
Valenzuela said the popularity of mixed martial arts has made wrestling an easier sell on his students.
They are willing to listen when you tell them that some of their favorite MMA fighters were former wrestlers, Valenzuela said. I dont train kids in MMA but they certainly like hearing that if they want to be good at the sport then wrestling is a good avenue to get to the top.
For a lot of kids I dont feel like it is not hard recruiting them.
And Valenzuela said he doesnt think it would be hard to penetrate Bostons inner-city basketball culture at the high school level either.
Basketball can only keep a few kids on a team and lets say you have a freshman, JV and varsity team, at most you only have 30 kids participating, he said. There are so many kids that arent playing a sport in the winter. I certainly have a big pool I can recruit from.
Kids that stick through it, even if they dont win that many matches, really find it rewarding.
But expanding into more Boston public high schools has proven hard for other relatively new and fringe sports such as tennis and boys volleyball.
Every question on any new program is almost like a negative all because of money, theres fiscal piece to it, Boston schools Athletic Director Ken Still said during a recent telephone interview about the expansion of sports such as tennis, volleyball and Double Dutch. Thats where [the Boston Scholar Athlete program] has come on board and is supposed to help us with startup programs. If a funder comes available to help well place it in even if its a burden on our plate.
Still also said that new programs also have to prove that the interest is there and that new teams wont fold, which is why Valenzuela is focused on building middle school programs one at a time.
He said he hopes that the athletic department will support a city wrestling league in the future.
Thats something we havent discussed, Still said. For now its just getting into as many middle schools as we can and to show there are kids out there that want to try new sports and have been successful doing it.
Currently the Josiah Quincy School serves as a city-wide wrestling team that will take athletes from any high school in the city, although Valenzuela said the roster is mostly made up of their own students. Valenzuela said he would be open to having TechBostons new varsity team field athletes from other schools next year as well.
While Latin School competes in the Dual County League, Valenzuelas TechBoston team, like Josiah Quincy, will play a completely non-league schedule.
Now that theres more than one city team that means there would be a seed for a start of a city league, eventually, Valenzuela said. That could potentially be the future of the city league.
In the meantime, Valenzuela is going to continue to look for middle school principals and coaches who want to start new programs in the city under the umbrella of Boston Youth Wrestling.
Starting on your own can be tough, he said. But if I was able to do it they just have to know they can be supported and that they have at least one group to lean on as they go through it.