By Conor Walsh
---- — In the fall of 2011, the Cape Ann Youth Wrestling program could hardly be considered a true youth program.
With just a dozen competitors and no experience, the squad was a start-up in the truest sense of the word.
A year and a half later, the program is still in its infancy. Its growth, however, can’t be ignored. The participation numbers have more than doubled, and as the young wrestlers -- spanning from kindergarten to eighth grade -- gain experience, success has followed.
After impressive outings from several young wrestlers at the Big East Tournament and the state tournament -- and even sending at least one competitor to this weekend’s New England Tournament in Lowell -- the program will wrap up its season Saturday when they host an intrasquad meet at Gloucester High School.
The event will span from 3 to 5:30 p.m. and will feature a general demonstration of the sport followed by matches between teammates.
There’s no charge for admission, but five-dollar donations are encouraged.
The hope for the event’s organizers, who have already seen the program that they’ve started rapidly expand, is to further establish themselves in the area and continue to increase local participation.
“It’s really taken off,” coach Kirk Benson said. “We’ve got good numbers and we’ve been able to take the kids to some meets and get some experience. On Saturday, we’re going to bring our kids out to wrestle each other as a demonstration so that people can come out and really see what wrestling is and raise some awareness. I hear people all the time saying that they still didn’t know that we have a program.”
And, while it may be a ways off, the eventual hope is to build off the Cape Ann Youth Wrestling program and build a successful program at Gloucester High School -- a plan that’s already underway, likely beginning next winter.
This winter’s seen more success than coaches like Benson and Steve McCarthy ever envisioned. With the original team returning team members -- including brothers Aidan and Conor McCarthy, Ryan Argentino, Liam Donahue, Quentin Ulrich and brothers Owen and Connor Sherlock -- joined by a slew of newcomers, the team’s experience has steadily risen.
Not surprisingly, that experience has yielded success.
After competing in several small meets during the season, Cape Ann sent its competitors on to the Big East Tournament, where they enjoyed far more success than expected.
Brothers Isaiah and Josiah Castallucci won their respective classes, while Cevin Harriman, Jeff Allen, Argentino, Donahue and Ulrich performed well enough to qualify for the state event.
Once there, Argentino -- a sixth grader wrestling at 110 pounds -- finished second in his class weight class to advance to this weekend’s New England meet.
Similarly, Ulrich (first place at 73 pounds) and Allen (third place at 68 pounds) placed at the state meet, but it’s unclear if they’ll join Argentino in Lowell this weekend or not.
The group’s ultimate goal to pit Gloucester against other established programs in the state’s high school ranks appears on its way to happening.
After a snafu before this winter season left the high school without a coach in what was supposed to be its first season, the Fishermen have righted the ship and secured their program heading into next season.
Matt Swanson, a young coach and former high school state champion in Connecticut, will run the squad in his first wrestling experience since graduating high school.
At this point, the program’s yet to be established, although three high school wrestlers worked out with Swanson during this winter and occasionally competed in junior varsity meets during the season.
Three wrestlers is hardly enough to field a competitive team -- with 14 high school weight classes, each unfilled slot is considered a forfeit. Naturally, Swanson hopes that event’s like this Saturday’s will help spark interest throughout the area, as success at the high school level is nearly always the result of popular youth programs.
And as things stand now, that’s the goal for everyone involved. What began simply as an idea has already grown significantly. The goal now is to further expand and provide local athletes with an alternative winter sport.
“We’re trying to introduce a lot of people to the sport so they can differentiate between us and what they see on TV,” McCarthy said. “We see kids going out and succeeding, winning medals, and me and Kirk can’t even believe it.
“A lot of kids are looking at it a lot more this year. They see kids winning medals, and a lot of kids might play other sports but see the window for those sports closing. In other sports, I’d say, ‘I’m small, but I make up for it by being slow.’ This gives people something if they’re looking for something else.”