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Phil Anastasia: Wrestling grabbing hold at Gloucester

Wrestling is not for everybody. Ask anybody involved in the sport and you will be told about the physical demands, the mental strain, and the challenge of individual competition in that lonely circle at the center of the mat.

Wrestling is not for everybody.

Ask anybody involved in the sport and you will be told about the physical demands, the mental strain, and the challenge of individual competition in that lonely circle at the center of the mat.

You will be told that it's not for everybody.

In Gloucester, they know that now. They suspected it in the spring. They got a better sense in the summer. But now they are certain.

They know wrestling is not for everybody.

Which might be why they love it so much.

"I had no idea," Gloucester senior Zach Dobleman said. "I had no idea it was this great of a sport. I love it. It's like I was born to do it."

Dobleman isn't alone. Gloucester has six dedicated seniors among a surprising total of 26 athletes who are members of the school's first wrestling program.

Under the direction of coach Tom McConnell, the Lions will take the mat for the first time Saturday afternoon by hosting a junior-varsity tournament for 17 teams. They will compete in a few other junior-varsity events in December, then wrestle a limited varsity schedule in January and February.

Gloucester's wrestlers will compete in the District 29 tournament in February. The team will become a full-fledged member of the Tri-County Conference in 2010-2011.

"It's a great sport," senior Andrew Lado said. "It's physical, it gets you in shape, it makes you disciplined."

It's quite a story: A Sport Grows in Gloucester. And it's exciting for the wrestling community as well as for McConnell, his assistants, and those athletes who were working hard yesterday in that little converted classroom at the end of the A wing at the school.

Wrestlers worry about their sport. They worry about the elimination of college programs, about low numbers at the sub-varsity level in many high school programs.

This is different. This is an old, established high school athletic department adding a new sport.

This is Gloucester, a tough town with lots of tough kids, creating an opportunity for athletes to channel their aggressiveness into the unique demands of the sport.

"There's so much tradition around here," McConnell said. "For us to have 25 kids still in that room, that says a lot. That says a lot about these kids and how much they want to be a part of this."

McConnell teaches at Gloucester. He's a former wrestler at Collingswood and former head coach at Kingsway.

He started the program last spring with after-school clinics. He ran workouts in the summer, too.

But things really took shape the day after Thanksgiving, with the first official practice. The coach said a little more than 30 students signed up. Just a handful decided the sport wasn't for them.

"It's a lot tougher than I thought it would be," senior Jackson Aymes said. "It's like guys were saying, 'I've done football, I've done this sport, I've done that.' But they hadn't done wrestling."

Like all wrestling folks, McConnell knows that the demanding nature of the sport is the best thing about it.

"It's a brotherhood," McConnell said. "You get involved in wrestling, and you always have that respect for other wrestlers."

That's what McConnell and his assistants have been stressing in that little room. The Lions have an experienced, energetic coaching staff that includes Dechlin Moody, Tom Macauley, Tony McSweeney, and Orlando Cuevas.

McConnell also considers Kevin Dougherty to be part of the coaching staff. Dougherty runs the town's new youth program that takes over the converted classroom at 5:30 p.m.

"We have around 30, 35 kids signed up for that," McConnell said. "There's been tremendous interest in the town."

The coaches have started with the basics, since none of their wrestlers have any experience. But they have plenty of enthusiasm.

"I love it," senior Brian Murphy said. "It's rough and physical, but it makes you have character and be disciplined."

Senior Oscar Morales said the Lions were getting better every day.

"We're always learning something new," Morales said. "It's pretty hard, but it gives you a lot of self-confidence."

Wrestling is not for everybody.

Just ask any wrestler - especially the new ones at Gloucester.

"It's amazing to be a part of the start of something like this," Dobleman said. "I know I'll be able to come back here in 10 years and they're going to have a great wrestling team."