In the world of wrestling, adversity is par for the course. The Stony Brook University wrestling team is no exception when it comes to battling it.
Over the course of the past few years, the club survived a serious financial setback that left it with a barebones budget. With that issue behind them, the team has moved on to the tasks at hand: working towards the emergence of its first All-American, and possibly producing a mixed martial artist.
“To be an All-American, you have to really dedicate your life,” Dennis Kropp, a 22-year-old senior and All-American hopeful competing at 174 pounds, said. “It’d be amazing. It’d be huge. To be able to say that for the rest of your life would be unreal.”
The road to becoming an All-American is a grueling one. In the National Collegiate Wrestling Association, the division in which Stony Brook’s team is affiliated, an individual must place in the top-six of a national tournament. The competition consists of a 64-man bracket of a specific weight class’ best I’d replace this with athletes. In order to even qualify for Nationals, a wrestler must place in the top five of a conference tournament.
“We have some phenomenal wrestlers, so we’re more of a tournament team,” Austin Hecker, the team’s president, said. “We have some guys that are insanely experienced and very skilled. When it comes to that, I’m confident that we’ll send several guys to the Nationals. I can think of four or five off the top of my head.”
Hecker, a 21-year-old junior who wrestles at 133 pounds, has been wrestling since he was in seventh grade. Fast-forward nearly a decade, and Hecker is leading his college team.
Prior to earning the position of president, Hecker gained executive-board experience as the club’s treasurer beginning in his second semester of college. He was instrumental in cleaning up the financial mess that was left for him and the team.
“My freshman year, money was very tight,” Hecker said. “As my [former] coach had explained it to me, the year before he came here (Hecker is unsure of when that was), the treasurer forgot to reapply for a budget so [the club] had to start over at zero. You can only increase your budget by 33 percent each year. A couple of years ago, we had to apply for several grants just to be able to go to Nationals.”
Many of the club’s financial setbacks have since subsided. Hecker takes an optimistic view of the club’s current budget situation, rating it “a nine or a ten.” It has enough money to support its current 20-man roster.
“We have enough to travel with and we can stay in hotels without cramming seven guys into one room like we had to during my freshman year,” Hecker said. “That’s been through diligently keeping track of our budget and knowing how much we need. If the team continues to grow, we’ll need to get a budget increase. But we’ll address that when it’s time.”
The money is crucial to the team’s success, as the budget allows it to pay for travel expenses, hotels, airline tickets, team fees, tournament fees, and the wrestling essentials such as mat cleaner and mat tape. The team’s budget also pays for a space off-campus in Port Jeff, so that the team can host night practices.
While the club is able to practice on-campus in the morning, open recitation has prevented it from being able to use the Student Recreation Center at night, so the team has been practicing off-campus since the start of the semester. Stony Brook has been able to utilize a space occupied by RaZor Wrestling Club, a skilled local high school team The club’s ability to remain upbeat after repeatedly being dealt tricky hands year after year is a true testament to their healthy mentality. Given the strong mental fortitude that’s crucial to succeeding in the sport, the Stony Brook team’s resilience isn’t a shock. Ted DiPasquale, who has been helping coach the team, spoke to the vitalness of a strong mindset.
“I can’t stress enough how important the mental aspect of wrestling is,” he said. “It far outweighs the physical aspect. Wrestling is 85 percent mental. If you don’t have the proper mindset and don’t believe you’re going to be successful, then you don’t have a high chance of being successful.”
Due to time-constraints, DiPasquale didn’t want to commit to filling the team’s full-time coaching vacancy, but the long-time youth wrestling coach wanted to assist as much as he could after Hecker reached out to him this past summer.
Since then, DiPasquale has aided the wrestlers in drilling basics such as takedowns, maintaining top control and escaping from the bottom. The repetition had helped Stony Brook prepare for when they competed at the Grapple at the Garden event at Madison Square Garden this past November.
DiPasquale was impressed with the team’s performance. Kropp, who defeated his opponent in a 9-0 whitewash, stood out. With that victory, Kropp is one step closer to achieving one of his goals: making Nationals.
Unfortunately, for a lot of collegiate wrestlers, there is no future in the sport after graduation.
“There’s not a lot of post-college wrestling,” Hecker said. “You find some open tournaments and you’re the old man. That’s why you see a lot of wrestlers go into Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu or Mixed Martial Arts. You end up being a coach or doing another sport.”
Kropp has stated an interest in pursuing a career in MMA after he graduates from college in May.
“100 percent,” Kropp said of his intentions to become a mixed martial artist. “I’ll pursue a career over the summer.”
He would have quite a few things going for him should he decide to transition into what is arguably the fastest-growing combat sport. He has practiced boxing, professional MMA has recently become legalized in the state of New York and perhaps, most importantly, he has a strong wrestling base that he can partially attribute to his time with the Stony Brook wrestling club.
Wrestling is one of the best bases or specializations that an aspiring fighter could have. Erion Zekthi, a professional mixed martial artist from Missouri, has a wrestling base and commended the sport for the impact it has had on his young career.
“Everything I do in my fighting style extends from my ability and confidence to take someone down or prevent myself from being taken down,” the 24-year-old said. “Good luck trying to take me down, and if you do, good luck keeping me there.”
Zekthi has proposed that wrestling is the best martial art in terms of dictating where a fight takes place.
“If I’m fighting a boxer, I can completely negate his martial art by taking him down,” he said. “And if I’m fighting a jiu-jitsu guy, I can negate his martial art by not being taken down. I know if I get rocked or put into a bad position, I can rely on my wrestling.”
Zekthi wrestled at Affton High School in Missouri in Class II, the high school level’s equivalent to NCAA Division II. The college he attended did not have a wrestling team, and Zekthi elected to stay close to home to be with his ailing mother in the last years of her life. After all that, Zekthi still stated that wrestling was the hardest thing he’s ever done in his life. That speaks volumes to the mental fortitude that athletes pursuing the sport must have.
Zekthi said that wrestling has humbled him into a man. Kropp has said that the mindset he developed from wrestling helped him push through tough times, both academically and socially. DiPasquale has said that much of the preparation in wrestling comes from a strong mentality. And while Hecker doesn’t yet know how he plans to stay involved, he refuses to bid farewell to wrestling after college.
“I absolutely plan to stay involved in wrestling,” Hecker said. “I love this sport too much to ditch it. Even if it’s teaching youth, it’s being involved, right?”
Whether one stays involved through coaching or MMA or bids the wrestling chapter of their life farewell, those who participate in the sport have resoundingly stated that it has made them better people.