BR pins wrestling future on former student

sheldonpicThe internationally renowned wrestling program at Bishop Ryan Catholic Secondary School has both a glorious past and an exciting-looking future.

In the hallway adjacent to the east Hamilton school’s gym, the walls are filled with large displays of newspaper clippings and plaques recognizing the impressive mat achievements of Celtic’s freestyle wrestlers through more than four decades of competition.

Since the early 1970s, Bishop Ryan has brought home six Ontario Federation of School Athletic Associations team gold medals, seven team silver plus four team bronze. And then there’s all the individual awards. That’s where the Celtics have enjoyed even more success, capturing a record 35 gold, 31 silver and 23 bronze medals at provincial high school championships.

No other school in Ontario has come close to the 289 points that Bishop Ryan earned while finishing first as a team during OFSAA of 1982. In addition, on a record five occasions, Celtics have bagged as many as three individual gold medals.

Brothers Chris and Greg Woodcroft – both currently high school principals – starred for BR before going on the represent Canada at three Olympic Games from 1988-96. Many other Bishop Ryan products were either multi-time OFSAA champions, Canadian Interuniversity Sport title-holders or best in the country at the age-group level.

That winning tradition now is in the hands of one of the school’s former star wrestlers who arrived on the scene as a teacher and head coach last fall. The new leader is 29-year-old Sheldon Francis who won three consecutive OFSAA gold medals from 2001-03.

The Hamilton native also had his arm raised in victory as a Canadian junior champion, Canada Summer Games champion and at the national university level for the McMaster Marauders (winning two CIS gold, two silver and a bronze).

Francis is in his first year of teaching. For three years after graduating from Mac he worked in various business and accounting capacities with the McMaster Department of Athletics.

“I was pleasantly surprised and ecstatic when I heard that Sheldon would be hired here,” said John Di Benedetto, who began coaching at BR in 1988 after taking over from the legendary Harry Mancini. “I knew that Sheldon was trying to pursue a teaching career. Our program right now could use some fresh blood to help. And with us moving into the new building (scheduled for next fall), the timing was perfect.

“Sheldon was arguably the most talented athlete ever to go through Bishop Ryan high school as a student. He’ll be a great asset and role model.”

Di Benedetto, a physical education teacher who now has three young children, coached Francis at BR and has also has worked with him as an assistant at McMaster. Plans are for Di Benedetto to remain as an assistant wrestling coach and help Francis with the “paperwork” of running the program.

The Bishop Ryan wrestling squad is currently comprised of 23 boys and seven girls. Celtics have already won four tournaments this season and seem primed for the 2013 city championships scheduled for Friday at Bishop Ryan.

“We have a 40-year undefeated streak on the men’s side at the city championships … it would be horrible to lose that in my first year,” Francis said with a laugh. “I went to teachers’ college, came back and was able to get a job with the board. I’m happy it’s at BR. Bishop Ryan wrestling is known internationally. I’m a younger coach coming in. I can put in the time and energy. Hopefully, we’ll be able to bring the team up to what it was in the past.”

McMaster’s Male Athlete of the Year in 2006, Francis’s coaching experience includes a stint with Canada’s U-17 team at the FILA Cadet world championships in Hungary. He also coached Canada’s U-18 men and U-24 women.

“I’ve also been somewhat involved with helping out with the Ontario development program and the Canada Summer Games program,” he added.

When asked how Bishop Ryan became such a powerhouse in wrestling, Francis said it all started with the dedication and passion for the sport shown by people like Mancini, assistant Derm Tilley, and Di Benedetto. Francis also says the school continues to receive solid support from the community and various administrative levels. Another key factor was having the national training centre and the Hamilton Wrestling Club based at McMaster where BR athletes could go and receive top-flight technical training from the likes of former Olympic coach Nick Cipriano of Mac.

With construction under way for the new $36.7-million Bishop Ryan – located at Rymal Road East and Trinity Church Road – special provisions are being made for wrestling. Plans call for 30-foot by 40-foot wrestling room in a wing off one of the gymnasiums. Said Francis: “It’s going to be a permanently-matted padded room. And we’ll be able to have our chin-up bars.”

Not many schools have special rooms for wrestling. Bishop Ryan’s OFSAA rivals from Milton’s E. C. Drury and Hagersville have benefitted from that type of facility, however. McMaster had a wrestling room until they lost it through the renovation process.

“Our permanently-matted room will be much better than the other rooms out there,” Francis said.

A new wrestling area at BR is expected to enhance the overall training experience. It will also allow for summer programs, Christmas camps and grass roots instruction of kids from feeder schools. “A steady stream of Bishop Ryan wrestlers should be coming up,” Francis said.

Already this season Bishop Ryan gold-medal performances have been achieved by Anthony Italiano, Chance Wise, Isaiah Padmore, Brad MaGarrey, Giordan Caruso, Chuck Hinkley, Garrison Nichols, William D’Alessandro, Wyatt Dorion, Anthony Ciampaglia, Todd Wong, Steve Collura, Aaron Viera, Deshawn Davidson, Scott MacLellan, Carter Johnston, Joana Nunes and Maddy Divinski.

Aside from the physical fitness benefits of the sport, Francis believes a young wrestler gains confidence, respects others and learns about discipline and time management.

The OFSAA championships are scheduled for March 5-7 in Guelph. Organizers are tentatively hoping to hold the event at the Sleeman Centre.

The following is a list of Bishop Ryan athletes who have won one or more OFSAA individual gold medals: Greg Woodcroft, Emidio Coccia, Sheldon Francis, Paul Bellavia, Dave Mair, Joe Mair, Fabio Coccia, Roger Ruiu, Joe Sardo, Mike Marzucco, Terry DiNatale, Chris Woodcroft, Dave Maniaci, Sean Mallon, John Reda, Jason Mancini, Peter Ranieri, Jose DiSanto, Igor Mozetic, Alex Beloglazov, James Garcia Hennings, Chris Garneau, Kyle Rose.