I am a wrestling fan. This is not to be confused with “wrasslin’” of the Hulk Hogan kind.

In high school I played basketball, but wrestling was the dominant sport at Suffield Academy. The venue where wrestling matches took place was packed every match to help spur on a win streak that finally ended at 74-0-1.

Good wrestling is enjoyable to watch, and amazingly, in our area, it can be found with the little guys participating in the Geneva Youth Wrestling program.

Check this out: Angel Lopez Jr. at age 9 (top photo) and his teammate, Nick “Manny” Mateo Jr. at age 6 (bottom), already have combined for a whopping 500-plus wins.

I first came in contact with their abilities while watching matches that were live-streamed by Angel Lopez, dad of Angel Jr.

I am pretty sure we became Facebook friends as a result of our mutual connection to horse racing. Angel works at the Finger Lakes track, and I routinely photograph many of the biggest races in the nation.

About a year ago, bored on my couch and looking at Facebook, I finally clicked on a match. As someone who knows a bit about wrestling, I was surprised at how good these little kids are. They are not rolling around and chasing each other recklessly but rather are putting together some very sophisticated moves and thinking several steps ahead as far as what to do next.

How did they get so good?

Nick’s dad wrestled at Geneva High and won a Section V title. He previously was involved in coaching at Waterloo. Now 36, he is the head coach of the Geneva Youth Program. It is something he started six years ago with 10 kids, and he now trains 37 boys and girls.

Angel Lopez is an assistant coach there. He also has a 6-year-old son, Bebe, who has over 200 wins to date.

Lots of hard work is breeding success with the program that has these kids (kindergarten through eight grade), winning many tournaments. Of course, winning can be contagious and may help in attracting new members.

This past Sunday Geneva hosted a large youth tournament. Let’s just say the parking lot had more cars in it than during a varsity basketball game. The stands were nearly full with spectators. The tourney featured many teams, including 22 Geneva wrestlers. Used to winning often and also being good hosts, Geneva did not submit a team sheet Sunday to allow for other programs to pick up win and place victories.

Angel Jr. won his 313th career match Sunday and is ranked No. 2 in New York. Manny also won all four of his matches that day and currently is ranked No. 1 in the state. Both wrestle at about 55 pounds in different age groups.

Both also have so many trophies at home they can’t give a number. Of course, on the occasion that they might suffer defeat, it isn’t easy but Coach Mateo tries to instill the concept of sportsmanship within the program.

While I was interviewing Coach Mateo his daughter was on the mat taking on an opponent, in this case a boy.

In no way distracted, I asked Nick, “Did she win?” He looked over and calmly answered, “I believe so because the boy is crying.” She had pinned him.

He is so dedicated to the program that he expects to continue as coach even when his own children age out. He says he loves the sport, interaction, kids and seeing their progression.

He believes in a family type environment. The program members are very close. He is proud of all the kids, no matter their level or if they discontinue wrestling. When he see former wrestlers in Wegmans or around town, he still has a place in his heart for them.

Bill Hadsell is the head coach of the Geneva High varsity wrestling team. He likes what he sees going on with the youth program and believes that it will provide a valuable pipeline for future high school wrestlers.

One of the things Hadsell was quick to mention was the genuine family atmosphere and tight-knit group that exists within the youth program. He credits Mateo for establishing that atmosphere.

In a time when many non-high profile high school sports are lacking in numbers and are being forced to combine with other districts, it is likely the Geneva High wrestling program will, within a few years, see a resurgence. And a positive one at that.

I have always been a proponent for organized sports as a powerful tool to provide so many important characteristics for our youth. Discipline, exercise, team spirit, sportsmanship, education, friendship, listening skills and so much more including keeping them off the streets with healthy options. So then I ask the question, Why is it that if a student-athlete has academic problems or poor conduct in high school, sports often are the first thing they are banned from? Non-athletes don’t suffer equal consequences. If you want to punish, then consider having non-athletes participate in a week’s worth of wrestling practices. They would never forget the hard work involved and maybe, just maybe, it would deter the from future problems.

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