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Open Mike: Eden wrestling force finds additional strength in family

SMYTHE EDEN’S ALL-TIME WINS LEADER — Eden senior Alex Smythe took third place at the state championships and became the program’s all-time win leader this season. File photo by David Eckhardt.

Alex Smythe may not lose very often on the wrestling mat, but that doesn’t mean the Eden High School senior doesn’t know all too well about loss.

Smythe has been a sight to watch, ever since he stepped on the mat as an eighth grader on the varsity team and made it all the way to a sectional title tilt. Actually, a fateful day as a third-grade student marked the beginning of his ongoing wrestling pursuit. What he has learned from the sport has taken him to new levels of accomplishment and helped him through some of the more challenging times in competition, as well as life.

It’s a beautiful thing to watch: a wrestler with the combination of speed, agility, coordination and strength, according to Alex’s father, Mark Smythe. During the past 10 years, his son has combined all of those traits to make a gritty sport look picturesque.

“It’s a pretty graceful thing to watch when it all happens together,” Mark said, while leaning against the counter in the kitchen of his Eden home, as his son and daughter, Cassie, a student-athlete at Wells College, sit at the table. “People always comment on that, when they’re watching Alex, and they may not even know what they’re watching, but they know it’s something to see.”

The siblings were sitting at the very same table where Mark remembered Alex being when the story of the most winning wrestler at Eden High School began to take shape. It all started when Mark and his wife, Sandy, saw an ad for the Eden Wrestling Kids Club in a local paper. Sandy kept reminding the two about it, but it wasn’t until a final reminder the night of the program’s start that Alex’s father sprang into action.

With a little coaxing from dad, Alex got the opportunity to meet the coaches who helped shape his wrestling career. Tom Page, the Eden varsity coach the past six seasons, and Charles Rizzo, the varsity coach at the time, were running the club.

“I told Alex, ‘You’re going to wrestling;’ he came out, looking like he had concrete weights on his feet,” Mark remembered. “And, of course, he winds up being a natural wrestler. He knew nothing about wrestling at the time, but after an awesome practice, he comes home, and all I remember is that he looks at me and says, ‘Dad, I really like wrestling.’”

Alex’s interest in the sport and natural ability for it only blossomed from there, and eventually led to a varsity career culminating in 225 wins and three trips to the state tournament, the past two seasons yielding a third-place finish.

“It was fun,” said Alex, who also tried basketball. “I knew back then [that] wrestling was the way to go.”

While Alex blossomed in the sport, the woman who was so integral in first sending her son to the mat, and taking on the many responsibilities of a loving mother – providing support and confidence, and of course, transportation to and from practices – became ill, leading to a long sickness.

“She’d be driving us back and forth between our activities all the time [before she got sick],” Cassie remembered.

Sandy Steislinger Smythe, a warm and caring mother, according to her husband, died on Dec. 27, 2010, when Alex was just a freshman and his sister was a senior, at Eden High School.

That same school year, Alex still made the first of three state appearances for wrestling, while Cassie, playing on a bum ankle, led the girls basketball team to the program’s first sectional title in nearly three decades and first-ever trip to the play in the Far West Regional. Talk about two brave kids. The two only continued to achieve and persevere. Ask those closest to the situation and they will tell you that it is a testament to the strength of the family.

“I couldn’t be prouder of them if they were my own family,” said Eden athletic director Marisa Fallacaro, who coached Cassie during her four years of varsity basketball and has grown close to the family. “If you didn’t know about what happened in the past, you never would be able to tell. These two kids have dedicated themselves to making their father and their mother proud.”

Behind all of the jokes and sarcasm and fun that they have amongst one another, this is a somewhat private, structured and close-knit family doing all it can to support one another. While Alex said that he has had some great friends and coaches along the way, there have been two major influences in his life: his father and sister.

Alex has more of an appreciation for the bravery and sticktoitiveness exhibited by his sister, while doting dad Mark has done his best to be just the right mix of caring father and disciplinarian to both.

“Well, obviously, I’ve depended on him,” Alex said of his dad, with sarcasm, creating even more laughter in the family’s kitchen.

“That was lame,” his dad poked back, looking for sincerity, but realizing the sentiment was well intended.

Deep down, they all know they wouldn’t have gotten through the more difficult times without one another.

“What happened never slowed Alex down,” said Eden head varsity football coach Chuck Tilley, who coached Alex for three years, while he starred as a running back. “His father did a great job raising him and was very involved. Its speaks to how well he was brought up that he overcame what he has and just kept going strong.”
FAMILY — Alex Smythe has counted on his family pictured right, including father, Mark, and older sister, Cassie, during tougher times.

A show of strength

In addition to the support he has received, strength has been a key component of Alex’s success. Whether he was running over an opponent on the gridiron as a small but powerful back who finished his runs or burying a contender on the mat, Smythe has enjoyed a strength advantage for many years.

Mark said that he and his wife always put Alex to work outside in the barn and didn’t allow the kids to sit in front of the TV or play video games, instead having them take part in activities to stay active. It was always a dream of Sandy’s to own a horse farm, so the family moved from Pendleton to its current home in Eden.

“We did not have any type of game systems; not one,” Cassie said.

“That’s why I was always over my friends’ houses,” Alex quipped.

For years, Alex has stuck to a regimen of working out and getting in runs to better his physique and ready for competition, and it has paid dividends. It was noticeable even when he was still a middle school student.

“Alex has been really dedicated to his two sports,” said Tilley, a former semi-professional football player himself. “In my 25 years of coaching, I’ve never seen any kid in better condition. Even in eighth grade, he looked like a mini Incredible Hulk.”

Alex and Tommy Page, the coach’s son, whom once ripped through older and bigger competition in the kids club, followed one another on the path to 200 wins, multiple sectional titles and an opportunity to win a state title in high school.

“There was a 16-year-old kid with a mustache and Tommy and Alex used to take care of everyone in the whole room,” Mark said. “These two little third and fourth graders used to hammer the other wrestlers.”

Alex said that his desire to keep getting better and going further in the sport drove him to keep pushing himself. “There’s always been guys on my team that have been good and guys in Section VI that were good and I wanted to follow them,” noted the athlete, who has signed to wrestle at the Division I level with the State University of New York at Buffalo.

Smythe was never able to bring home that elusive state title, finishing for a consecutive season in third, wrestling back hard to do so, but still feeling the disappointment that comes with falling short of a goal. He placed all three times at states, this year at Division II, 160 pounds.

“He did a lot in his career and what happened was an extreme disappointment and, in your heart, you knew it was all you, but things happen in wrestling,” Mark said, directing his thoughts toward his son. “You could have just quit and shut it down right there, but faced with what you’ve been faced with in your life, maybe that is what’s giving you the strength and perspective to do those kinds of things.”

What coach Page saw from Alex’s epitomized the attitude and perseverance his wrestler has shown in life, as well as on the mat. Alex won four straight matches after falling in a quarterfinal, which went to three overtimes, and finished with a 5 – 1 mark during the two days at states.

“It was unfortunate he didn’t win a state title, but after he lost it was really gut check time,” Page said. “It was his last opportunity at states and what he was able to do says a lot about him. He’s so serious about the sport.”

Page, who refers to Alex as a beast of a wrestler, said he’d love to have that quarterfinal match back. He noted that Alex was not able to execute the offensive tactics that made the senior so tough to wrestle for many years.

Alex sighed, as he talked about what happened at states. He said that he appreciates the experience, but still finds it hard to wrap his head around not bringing home a state title. He was motivated by his longtime coach articulating to him how important it is not to quit.

“It’s a good experience going there every time,” Alex said. “I mean, I’m friends with guys from all over the state so you get to see them. [After the loss], I just enjoyed it. I knew it was my last four senior matches.”
SHE CAN PLAY — Cassie Smythe shoots a three-pointer during Eden's sectional-title winning 2010-11 season.

Cassie’s influence

Growing up, Alex had to look no farther than his own sister, Cassie, for inspiration. Though he may not have known it back then, he is beginning to realize it now. The duo acts like a typical brother and sister, bickering back and forth and challenging one another about most of what is being discussed, but the bond between the two is obvious.

Cassie has always been tough, playing soccer and softball, along with basketball, at Eden. She first picked up a basketball in her driveway in Pendleton and then started to play in a youth league, upon the family’s move to Eden. “I’ve always had really good friends on my team, so that kept me playing, too,” she noted.

She is also a case study in perseverance. Cassie has gone through two ACL surgeries and other ailments, and still continues to play – and play well. She was a key reserve as a junior on a Wells College women’s basketball team that made its first NCAA Division III appearance this season, in only the program’s fourth year of existence.

“It’s been a fun ride. It was amazing experience this year,” Cassie said. “We’ve had some tough losses, but it worked out in the end for us.”

She also accomplished some pretty special things at Eden, playing through the pain of a high ankle sprain, to lead the basketball team to a sectional title and regional berth. She had also returned early in her junior year, after her first ACL tear.

“Senior year, I knew we could go really far in the playoffs so the ankle wasn’t going to stop me,” said Cassie, who would miss her freshman season of college basketball after a second ACL tear. “When I’m told I won’t be back when I want to be back, it’s made me work even more to come back when I wanted to. It was always in time for basketball.”

Her basketball career was in jeopardy, after the second ACL tear. But Cassie told everyone that she would play again – and she did.

“Cassie and Alex both have had injuries and numerous opportunities in life to say, ‘It’s too much. I’m done,’ and instead they’ve only worked harder and gotten better,” Fallacaro said. “I use both of them as examples for my teams and tell my players this is what they did. I use them to create a mindset for my teams.”

Cassie has now become her brother’s biggest fan. She follows and watches him compete online when she can and was on FaceTime™, with her dad, following along during the sectional and state matches. “I don’t think he understands how nervous we get watching,” Cassie said.

“Cassie is very supportive,” Mark added.

And Cassie depends very much on “her favorite two guys,” as Fallacaro said her former player calls Alex and Mark. “They really are close as a family,” Fallacaro noted.
ALSO A FOOTBALL PLAYER — Alex Smythe was also a three-year varsity standout at running back for Eden, which this past fall made it to the sectional semifinals. File photo courtesy of Ron Larson.

Good athlete, better person

Smythe ranks in the top 10 all-time in Western New York in wins. Coach Page even said that Alex was the most focused wrestler he ever worked with, including his son, who racked up an impressive 202 wins, but also just missed a state title. Tommy is now wrestling at the Division I level with American University. That alone says quite a lot about Alex.

“It was a bittersweet ending,” Page said, about Smythe’s high school career. “I’m familiar with that, through coaching my own son. But Alex accomplished a lot and I’m sure he’s going to have a fantastic career at UB.”

It won’t be just that final state result that defines Smythe. It’s the person that Alex has become that has been just as important and impressive.

Alex has forged some meaningful relationships that’s defined what he’s all about. One of which has been with his football coach’s son, Kyle Tilley, who has Down syndrome. Smythe befriended Kyle, the football team manager and fellow Eden student, three seasons ago and since then, has made him feel like one of the guys.

“My son, Kyle, considers Alex his best friend and for the way Alex has treated him, I will be forever grateful,” Tilley said. “He runs out on the field with Kyle and is always involving him in team activities. He’s like the big brother Kyle never had.”

They may consider themselves just a traditional family, but at the core, the Smythes are a tough unit, with a great deal of heart. Mark said that their mother’s memory pushes and drives Alex and Cassie. He realizes how proud she’d be of their accomplishments. It’s something Cassie and Alex never stop thinking about. “Every day,” Cassie said, softly.

Mark wanted to mandate some counseling after Sandy’s death, but he said that Cassie’s take, every step of the way, was, “Dad, that’s what family is for. I have you, dad; I’ll talk to you if I want to talk.”

“My and Sandy’s mission was to raise them with high morals and principals,” Mark said. “We’ll find out soon enough if we did our job.”

Mark remembers that, while he was fixing up the new house in Eden at the time, and working, Sandy was always on the go with her children. That’s where Sandy was able to have such an impact that lasts, to this day.

“She took great pride in her kids,” Mark said. “Even as she got sick, the biggest thing was her smile. You look over at mom and you knew what was going on, thanks to that smile.”

You can bet she would be smiling, right about now, from ear to ear.


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