OFSAA success is pinned on wrestling at Bishop Ryan

br_fullWe are … B-R! We are … B-R!

That familiar fan chant for Celtic sports teams could also serve as the theme for Bishop Ryan Catholic Secondary’s School’s homecoming celebrations on Saturday, Nov. 9. Proud alumni and staff will gather on that occasion for the last dinner/dance/reunion at the school’s Albright Road location.

Possibly as early as December, the new $36.7-million Bishop Ryan on the east Mountain is scheduled for opening. The school originally was based on Queenston Road from 1959 to 1991.

“I’ll be a bit sad,” said Sheldon Francis, a 30-year-old former star wrestler at BR who now serves as head coach of its wrestling program. “This is the only Bishop Ryan I have known.”

Francis won three consecutive Ontario Federation of School Athletic Association gold medals from 2001-03 before beginning an equally brilliant university career at McMaster. With the Marauders, he captured two gold medals, two silver and a bronze at Canadian university championship tournaments. He started teaching and coaching wrestling at BR just last year.

(Photo: Gerry Graham)

(Photo: Gerry Graham)

Wrestling has earned the east Hamilton school more recognition on the provincial stage than any other sport. And that winning tradition continues. The Celtics brought home the silver medal as a team from the Ontario high school championships of 2012-13. Seven BR athletes stepped up to the OFSAA awards podium at Guelph’s Sleeman Centre last winter – William D’Alessandro, Anthony Italiano, Aaron Viera, Chance Wise, Brad MaGarrey, Carter Johnston and Deshawn Davidson. And Francis is optimistic about this season, too: “We’re fighting to bring a (championship) banner back for the 45th year,” he said.

In addition to Francis, many other wrestlers from Bishop Ryan achieved remarkable success on the mat. Two of the most notable are brothers Chris and Greg Woodcroft. Both competed at the Olympics for Canada and both, oddly enough, are currently high school principals – Chris at Monsignor Doyle in Cambridge and Greg, at Brantford Pauline Johnson.

“My career took off from the end of high school on,” 48-year-old Chris Woodcroft said. “It definitely gave me the foundation for what I achieved, for sure.”

Another Woodcroft, Patrick, also competed on the wrestling team for Bishop Ryan. Chris and Greg, 45, attended the original BR site, while Patrick was based at Albright.

“I have very fond memories of the school,” Woodcroft said. “That’s where we started our wrestling careers in Grade 9. I had never heard of wrestling until then. I was very fortunate because I came on the scene at the right time.”

Woodcroft credits former BR wrestling coach Harry Mancini for sparking his interest in the sport and developing his skills. “He was an excellent coach and an excellent motivator,” Woodcroft said. “He did a great job of recruiting some of the best athletes in the school to be part of the wrestling team. He was successful fairly quickly.”

Mancini became the Celtics head coach in 1972 and within three years he produced the school’s first OFSAA gold-medallist – Joe Sardo.

In those early years on Queenston Road, wrestling practices were held in the cafeteria. That’s a far cry from the next BR, where the wrestlers will have their own padded room – 30-feet x 40-feet – for practices.

“It’s a great addition to our program,” Francis said.

Woodcroft, whose current school has a 20-plus-year streak of winning Waterloo high school wrestling championships, says he’s aware of the upcoming move for Bishop Ryan.

“I know it’s going to be a state-of-the art facility going up by Rymal Road (and Dakota Boulevard),” he said. It’s fantastic that they are going to have a wrestling room for the program. They deserve it.

“Especially in the early years, when we were down by Queenston Road, it catered to a lot of inner city students. But because of people like Harry Mancini, they became good student-athletes and professional people.”

Woodcroft recalls winning two OFSAA individual medals plus two team gold and a silver during his high school years. Greg, did even better. He earned four individual OFSAA gold medals.

“I was part of a strong dynasty at that time which continued from that point forward,” he said.

After outstanding university wrestling careers at McMaster, Greg and Chris landed Olympic berths. Chris represented Canada at Summer Games in Seoul (1988) and Barcelona (1992) while Greg competed in Atlanta (1996).

“Wrestling teaches you phenomenal teamwork skills,” Woodcroft said. “People would be surprised at that because wrestling is an individual sport. But you can’t be successful in wrestling if you’re not a good teammate. You have to have teammates to train with and spar with.”

Woodcroft says the sport requires discipline, dedication and a strong work ethic. Anyone can compete because of the wide-ranging weight-class categories.

When Mancini left teaching to begin a career in real estate, John Di Benedetto took over as coach in 1988. Di Benedetto, a product of the Bishop Ryan and McMaster wrestling, is still involved with the BR program which has collected 18 OFSAA team medals over the years (six gold, eight silver, four bronze).

Individually, Celtic athletes have brought home 35 gold, 32 silver and 24 bronze medals from the annual provincial showcase event. The list of OFSAA gold-medal winners also includes: Emidio Coccia (3), Paul Bellavia (2), Dave Mair (2), Joe Mair (2), Fabio Coccia (2), Roger Ruiu (2), Mike Marzucco, Terry Di Natale, Dave Maniaci, Peter Ranieri, Jose DiSanto, Igor Mozetic, James Garcia-Hennings, Chris Garneau and Kyle Rose.

This year’s Bishop Ryan Open Wrestling Tournament will again be held at the gym on Albright. The meet is scheduled for Friday, Dec. 13.

Woodcroft says the school’s wrestling success is just one of the reasons to Bishop Ryan’s homecoming.

The homecoming registration deadline is Nov. 1. For complete details and reservation forms, go to Future Events on the Bishop Ryan website www.bishopryanalumni.net.