Pickens' Perspective: PAL wrestling program helping Fairfield high schools
I was talking with someone on Wednesday who had some knowledge of the Fairfield Warde's wrestling program.
"Jason Shaughnessy is really smart about starting the PAL wrestling program, so they're really good by freshman year," my friend said.
It's true really. Start the kids young, let them understand what it takes to wrestle, and reap the rewards of having experienced wrestlers on the Warde team.
It has undoubtedly worked for Warde. The Mustangs became the first team in 23 years to knock Danbury off the top of the FCIAC mountain and win the Class L for the third time in four years. They assuredly would not have done so without the help of freshmen Pharoh Eaton and Tom Anania.
"It gave me a solid foundation to start off from at the high school level," Anania said. "I went to 15 tournaments last year. It gave me experience to get me ready at the high school level."
Eaton and Anania were two of the freshmen that had experience wrestling because of the PAL program. Shaughnessy started the program in 1998 as a way to get kids in town involved in wrestling. The program is still running strong 12 years later, with the help of several former Fairfield wrestlers, Shaughnessy and current Ludlowe coach Nick Garoffolo.
"We frame it as third through fifth grade because we have to limit the numbers," Shaughnessy said. "We already have about 40 kids. If I did K-5, there might be like 70 kids in there...and we like the kids to get as much experience as possible."
Nine of 14 wrestlers on Warde's 2010 roster were started wrestling for the PAL program. The program offers kids more than just wrestling though. It is a program that provides camaraderie and teamwork while teaching the kids the valuable life lessons that wrestling has to offer.
"You meet a lot of cool people, we all share the common thing of wrestling," Anania said. "It teaches me that I need to work hard at whatever I do."
"What you put into it is what you get out of it," Shaughnessy said.
Anania swears by the program, and he now has the credentials to back it up. The freshman was named as an All-American wrestler after an eighth place finish at the National High School Coaches Association High School Freshman National Championships in Virginia Beach, Va.
Anania's brother is in the program as well, and he spent five years learning how to wrestle.
"I wasn't intimidated about wrestling against older kids," Anania said.
If schools are serious about competing at the high school level in wrestling, it is becoming essential to have a feeder program like this. The kids get acclimated to the program and the coaching and, in turn, the coaches can nurture that talent and see what they have coming up.
"There are no surprises," Shaughnessy said. "I develop a relationship with the kids and with the parents. I look at the middle school and the high school as one program that goes straight through."
Shaughnessy admitted that he had no worries about Anania because he had been coaching him for five years already, Eaton was the same story. He won 38 matches as a freshman.
"They're ready to go and they know what to expect," Shaughnessy said. "I don't have to re-teach anything.
"The kids have the opportunity to be successful right away."
Coaches everywhere are looking for continuity and "reloading rather than rebuilding" with a feeder program in place, it works. All you need is committed kids.
"If you look at the top programs in the state, they all have some kind of youth program," Shaughnessy said.
Shaughnessy has those, and he's reaping the rewards of it all.