NEW YORK – After winning his second and final match at Madison Square Garden on Sunday, Steven Rodrigues sat down and gazed around the world’s most famous arena.
The fourth annual Grapple at the Garden offered 22 college teams a chance to compete on the same stage which will host this season’s NCAA Wrestling Championships. Rodrigues, a Fox Lane graduate who is now a senior at the University of Illinois, took the opportunity to soak it all in.
He knows that when he returns in March, there will be no time for nostalgia.
“This is it for me,” Rodrigues said from the floor at MSG. “Nationals are here, so to wrestle my last matches in this arena, I can’t really find a better fit to end my career. I’m excited for the future.”
Two of the best to ever come from the Lower Hudson Valley, Rodrigues and Somers native Brian Realbuto, both went 2-0 on Sunday and are considered to be among the best in the country. A handful of other locals also got to wrestle in front of the hometown crowd, but none are as well-known nationally as the two former New York State high school champions.
Realbuto, a two-time All-American as a junior for Cornell, is currently ranked No. 3 at 174 pounds by FloWrestling. Rodrigues is ranked ninth at 165 pounds after making a jump up three weight classes from 141.
“There’s a ton of motivation, especially after getting to that stage and not getting it,” said Realbuto, referring to his loss in the 157-pound NCAA final last season. “I think that’s kind of reinvigorated me in the sport. It made me want to put in the extra work and figure out how to actually win it this time.”
The two local headliners have taken notice of the increasing Section 1 presence in the college ranks.
Princeton’s Trey Aslanian (Edgemont), Cornell’s Dylan Realbuto (Somers), NYU’s Anthony Calvano (Nanuet), Oswego State’s Sean Maloney (Clarkstown South) and Maryland’s Youssif Hemida (Mamaroneck) all wrestled in the event.
“It’s awesome, and that’s something that we never had when I was growing up,” Brian Realbuto said. “Section 1 was nowhere near where it is today and it’s awesome to have all of those guys at all of those D-I schools — and doing well, too. I feel like we kind of kicked off that trend, and I hope it continues. The more guys that we send to college, the better.
“Section 1 is picking it up, and it’s awesome to be able to step out on the mat and look across and see Steven or Youssif or Trey or someone like that.”
Learning experience for Hemida: Youssif Hemida went through his entire senior season at Mamaroneck High without losing a match. He won the prestigious Eastern States Classic at 220 pounds and followed it up with a New York State championship in February.
Now a freshman at the University of Maryland, Hemida is no longer able to dominate the competition in that fashion. He got his first college dual meet action on Sunday and went 0-2, including a 6-1 loss to Illinois’ Brooks Black, who is currently ranked No. 11 at 285 pounds.
But despite the early bumps in the road, Hemida was not deterred.
“Although I lost, I always had this thought that Division I college wrestlers were almost invincible,” Hemida said. “But after wrestling a ranked guy from Illinois, I know that I can beat him. I just need to improve on certain positions and work very hard.”
On the mend: Two other local wrestlers missed out on the chance to wrestle at MSG due to minor injuries.
Putnam Valley grad John Messinger (shoulder) and Scarsdale grad Jacob Berkowitz (hamstring) are only expected to miss a few weeks. Messinger is a 165-pounder for NYU and Berkowitz is a 197-pounder for Northwestern.
“Not being able to be a part of this is really tough to deal with,” Messinger said. “It’s disappointing not being able to wrestle today at such a great event, but looking towards the end of this season is more important for me right now. That’s where my head is at.”
Quick takedowns: One of Brian Realbuto’s two wins came against a nationally ranked wrestler, a 9-6 decision over Nebraska’s Micah Barnes (No. 13 at 174 pounds). … Maloney won his only match of the day, a 5-1 decision over Muhlenberg’s Jake Gordon at 184 pounds. … The only other local to win a match besides Rodrigues, Realbuto and Maloney was Aslanian, who won via forfeit against Hofstra. He lost his second match, a 17-5 major decision to Nebraska’s Eric Montoya, who is ranked No. 9 at 133 pounds. … Dylan Realbuto, who won a New York State title last week at 141 pounds, was pinned in his only match by Rutgers’ Anthony Ashnault, who is ranked No. 4 at 141.