By Indiana Nash
NISKAYUNA- With the recent legalization of professional mixed martial arts competition in New York, the state is getting more exposure to wrestling-related sports and Niskayuna youths are no exception.
With the Niskayuna Elite Youth Wrestling club, students in elementary school can get a jump start on the sport and on competing.
“Ralph Carotenuto approached me and a few other coaches earlier this year with the idea and I immediately said yes,” said coach Shaun Neely, who is also a fifth-grade teacher at Hillside Elementary and a coach for Niskayuna’s varsity wrestling team.
The club is not necessarily ‘new’ for the district.
“We used to have something like this a few years ago, but the competition wasn’t there before,” Neely said. For the first time with this age group, Niskayuna players will be going up against players from Glens Falls, Burnt Hills and Ballston Spa in January and February through the Capital District Youth Wrestling League.
Carotenuto started the league when he realized that there wasn’t an organized league for kids who would want to get into wrestling.
“There are travel leagues for soccer, there are travel leagues for basketball, but nothing for wrestling around here,” Carotenuto said. He partnered with New York Wrestling Association for Youth, which granted CDYWL funding and guidance.
There are nine districts involved in the League this season, which runs from January 8 to February 12.
“We tried to keep it short and inexpensive so that people at all commitment levels could join,” Carotenuto said. The matches are also within an hour of Niskayuna so that parents won’t be driving hours to get to get match.
Carotenuto sees it as a way for kids to “get their feet wet” and try out wrestling.
The early start can be great for young wrestlers, especially because Neely and Carotenuto have found that kids come into wrestling with a different idea of what the sport will involve.
“Most kids think it’s going to be wild and crazy, but they get here and find that it’s actually pretty quiet and filled with rules,” Neely said.
The strictness of those rules has been surprising kids since practice began in November.
But the discipline that it takes to stay within those rules and still pin down an opponent is what makes the sport so valuable to learn, according to Neely.
“There’s a toughness element to it . . . you have to be able to persevere through situations,” Neely said.
The upcoming matches will bring up just such situations.
“They’re not nervous yet, but on the day of the match, they will be,” Neely said.
For most kids on the team, it will be their first match against anyone outside of Niskayuna.
“ . . . it’s not like you miss a pass or don’t hit a ball. In wrestling, you’re getting held down. It can be emotionally traumatic for kids sometimes,” Neely said.
That’s what turns some kids away from the sport.
For Neely, it’s what drew him towards wrestling.
Neely began wrestling when he was in third grade and in his experience, it’s helped him to not be limited by his size.
“I was always smaller, but size wasn’t going to hold me back,” Neely said, “Lots of times, the lighter weight classes can be the most competitive.”
He’s seen glimpses of this in his players too.
It’s one of the ways that respect and humility are built into the sport.
“Most wrestlers aren’t like pro-wrestlers that you see on tv. . . . there is a humbleness that comes from shaking a guy’s hand before you wrestle. Some kids adapt to that and love it,” Neely said.
The team’s first competition will be against Burnt Hills on January 8.
This is around the same time that the district’s youth wrestling program begins.
“We usually have about 75 kids sign up for that and who regularly come,” Neely said.
The Elite Wrestling team members will be folded into the youth program’s practices, which will give them the opportunity to wrestle against new opponents.
While Neely said that in the past few years he’s seen a lackluster interest in wrestling, the confidence that these kids are building within the sport may make them more likely to pursue it when they get into middle school and even later on in high school.
In a sport where confidence and concentration make or break the players, these early years of experience could make all the difference.
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