By Conor Walsh
---- — For a group of local wrestling enthusiasts, there was always something missing in the Gloucester winter sports scene.
In an area where the focus has always surrounded either the ice or the hardwood, the options for local athletes were limited during the winter months.
That group, headed by Kirk Benson and Steve McCarthy, has now changed that, as the Gloucester youth wrestling program kicked off its inaugural campaign with its first practice last night.
“Ever since I first came to Gloucester, I thought that there should be a wrestling program,” McCarthy said. “It seems like if you haven’t layed hockey since you were four years old, there was nothing for you.
“There’s a real need for a wrestling program. There’s a lot of tough Gloucester kids with a lot of time on their hands in the winter.”
With the help of others, Benson and McCarthy got the ball rolling on the wrestling program two years ago. A cash-strapped local athletics department slowed its progress, though, as the group couldn’t secure funding for the program until it could demonstrate sustainable participation.
So last year, they got things moving. With a single wrestling mat and what McCarthy termed a “rag-tag” group of eight-to-12 members, the wrestling program got itself, however slowly, underway.
Flash-forward 12 months and program has grown considerably, as upwards of 30 members are expected to turn out this year. With a four-man coaching staff that also includes John Bajoras and Josh Aldrich, the program will feature wrestlers as young as kindergarteners and as old as eighth-graders.
They’ll be housed in the auxiliary gym in the bowels of O’Maley Middle School, and while they still lack the numbers to host a dual- or tri-meet, the team will participate in a number of local tournaments.
They’ll travel to tournaments in Burlington and Lowell in December, followed by January trips to Chelmsford and Woburn. And while the startup program will be going up against wrestlers hailing from areas where wrestling’s as popular as football and hockey in Gloucester, they’re hoping it will be the beginning of Gloucester’s trip to that same kind of prowess on the mat.
“I grew up in New York, and where I wrestled in high school and college (Muskingum University in Ohio) wrestling is a lot more well-known than it is here,” Benson said. “We’re expecting to take some lumps at first, but hopefully not the knids of lumps that will discourage the kids. Hopefully they’ll stick it out, because it really builds character.”
The hope for the program’s founding members is that this will spark a local wrestling movement. McCarthy, for instance, hails from wrestling-crazed Winchester, where the high school’s success has produced a similarly-successful youth program.
For Gloucester, the hope is that it will work in the opposite direction. While steps continue to be taken to establish a high school team, perhaps still as early as this season, McCarthy hopes popularity at the youth level will eventually push into the high school ranks.
“We’re putting the horse in front of the carriage,” said McCarthy, who wrestled at Boston College after graduating from Winchester. “We’re looking at 25 to 30 kids this year, but other youth programs have 60 to 70 kids because they have good high school programs. We’re looking to lay the tracks and provide a good feeder program, and the endgame is to have a thriving high school program that the youth program can feed off of.”
And as they work toward that ultimate goal, the lessons these young wrestlers started to learn on the mat last night make the work of the program’s organizers worth it.
“The kids will develop sportsmanship,” Benson said. “You have to. Kids are going to get beat. Everybody loses. You have to learn how to handle that and be a man when you get whooped, and also know how to handle yourself when you beat a kid. Teaching these kids good sportsmanship, win or lose, is something that they’ll take with them.”