Friday December 20, 2013 | By:Michael J. Petro | Sports
Frontier\'s Rocco Russo (left) and Eden\'s Alex Smythe have formed a friendship dating back to sixth grade through wrestling. Both will move on to wrestle at the University at Buffalo. (Photo by David Eckhardt)
They may crack a few smiles when talking about their friendship or while acknowledging getting the opportunity to live out their dreams by signing to wrestle at the Division I level, but don’t be fooled.
Eden’s Alex Smythe and Frontier’s Rocco Russo are all business, when they hit the mat. They have been that way since they first sparred with one another and attended camps and clinics together as sixth graders and then as they came on to the high school wrestling scene, as middle school students.
Whether it’s Russo, bouncing back and forth, staring down his opponent before a match, or Smythe, playing up the intimidation factor as a hulking “freak of nature,” as his coach calls him, the pair are two of the fiercest of wrestlers in all of Western New York.
Both are defending sectional title holders, have moved on to the state qualifier multiple times and are leaving their marks as each schools’ best-ever wrestlers. But before they both take off for wrestling at the University at Buffalo, the friends have the same goal in mind. They would like to culminate their high school careers with a state championship.
“The pressure is definitely off, after last year,” Smythe said, about getting back to states. “Hopefully, this year, it’s right there for me. I’ve been working hard for it.”
“I’m looking to take that next step,” said Russo, who added that he hopes to wrestle the way he knows he can, if he makes a fourth straight state appearance. “I’ve just got to calm myself down before it.”
A honed-in Smythe will wrestle most of the season at 170, but said he will attempt to get down to 160 for what he hopes will be a long postseason run.
“We can pump him up to 182 and he still rips people apart; he’s such a gifted athlete,” his coach at Eden, Tom Page, said.
“He’s probably the most focused individual I have ever coached. He knows the goals and he doesn’t get rattled by what’s in front of him. He wants to go through everybody and anybody to get to the state title,” the coach added.
Russo has been busy in the weight room, getting strong physically, which his uncle and coach, Joe Russo, said has paid dividends in the early season. It’s also pushed Rocco Russo up a few weight classes, to 140 – 145. He won sectionals last season, at 126.
“I’ve done a lot more weight lifting than in past years,” he said. “I was never really a fan of it before, but I started to do it a lot now. It’s helped with my strength and I’ve been running every day and eating a lot healthier, having a lot of whole grains and things like that.”
FRIENDS OFF THE MAT, INTENSE COMPETITORS ON IT — Defending sectional champions and friends Rocco Russo (left) and Alex Smythe will both wrestle for UB (Photos courtesy of David Eckhardt and Ron Larson)
Along the way, Russo and Smythe have been there to support and motivate one another. This friendship began and has grown, thanks to the sport both said they take seriously.
Joe Russo pointed out that, for years, the two have participated in club wrestling together and traveled to out-of-town tournaments with one another. The coaches of both schools and both their families know one another, as well.
“I have been wrestling with him since elementary school and we became really good friends from there,” Rocco Russo said. “It will be nice to have someone I know at UB.”
The two will not only train once again together – as UB Bulls – but also plan to room together, their freshman year. Smythe said the two are just as much competitors as they are friends. “We started wrestling together in the sixth grade,” he said. “And I’ve won all of our matches against each other since then,” he playfully added.
“No, but we’re good friends and have been wrestling outside school for a while now,” he continued.
Already the school’s all-time wins leader, Russo should hit the 200-win mark before the end of the month. Russo is a three-time sectional champion who is going for a fourth, which would give him one last try at states.
“He hasn’t had much luck there, the past couple of years, but we’re working hard and we’re hoping this year, it changes,” Joe Russo said. “With a lot of guys there, you’re talking about a couple of points between first and fifth place. We think he’s right there.”
Smythe will also exceed the 200-win mark and break the all-time victory record set a few years ago by Tom Page, who is now wrestling at American University. That’s two Division I wrestlers from Eden in the past two seasons, an honor that coach Tom Page noted says a lot about his wrestlers’ willingness to listen and learn.
“It’s pretty nice,” Smythe said, about his career achievements. “No, I never thought about it. When 100 wins came up, I thought that would be cool, and now 200 is within reach, and it’s even better.”
What both wrestlers had been thinking about was where to go to school. Both said they found UB and its new coaching staff to be a perfect fit. It was an added bonus that both were recruited and decided on the same school.
Russo said that he was not sure what his nephew was going to do, but when UB brought on John Stutzman and the two were introduced, Rocco Russo took to the new coach. Stutzman, a 1998 graduate of UB, left as the school’s all-time most winning wrestler. He earned conference coach of the year honors three times while heading Bloomburg, after serving as an assistant at UB and MAC-rival Northern Illinois University.
In their interaction during the national championships in Fargo, Russo said he liked Stutzman’s style of coaching and what he brought to the table. He also met and liked assistant Bryce Hasseman.
“The coach thinks that he’ll fit right in,” Joe Russo said. “We’re excited about that and it takes the pressure off of Rocco. He can just go out there and enjoy what he’s doing now.”
Smythe and Rocco Russo are part of an 11-wrestler recruiting class. The Southtowns Duals’ most outstanding wrestler, Ryan Kromer of Lew-Port, who is also a fellow UB signee, took a 3 – 1 decision from Smythe in one in a Dec. 5 – 6 match, early in the season.
“I like it all at UB,” Smythe said. “I think the coach is doing some great things and he’s had a lot of success at a smaller school in Bloomsburg, so now that he has more resources, I think he’ll do good things.”
Both high school coaches said their athletes can be difference-makers right away, at the college level.
“I am excited to Add Alex to our program,” Stutzman said, on the team’s website. “When I was hired, one of my main objectives was to keep the best kids home and Alex is clearly one of those guys. Alex is a local standout and has a great work ethic. We expect Alex to come in right away and push for the starting job.”
“Rocco is another local standout,” he continued. “He has been on board with us from day one and I am excited to have him here with us. Rocco is a strong student and is committed to winning the right way. He will come in right away and push to be the guy.”
Although the celebration of two winning careers and anticipation of getting to UB are swirling around them, the athletes said they will not let this season get lost, in the excitement of all that’s going on. The two wrestlers said that they are serious about reaching their goals.
“It’s been a fun high school career so far, but it’s not over, though,” Russo reiterated.