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High School Wrestling: Russo tops competition at NCCC; Frontier, Lake Shore to hold alumni nights

Rocco Russo, who lifts an opponent in an early-season match, has remained unbeaten going into a big U.S. Eastern Regional this weekend. (Photo courtesy of Ron Larson)

It would be difficult to argue that Rocco Russo hasn’t been one of the most impressive wrestlers in Western New York this season. His performance against a loaded field at the Niagara Frontier Officials Tournament on Jan. 4-5 only strengthened that argument.

The Frontier junior continued an unblemished season, this time exhibiting his dominance among 37 teams competing in the tournament at Niagara County Community College. The tournament featured competitors from all over Western New York along with Rochester.

Already eclipsing the school’s all-time career win mark this season, Russo remained undefeated with a 5-0 showing at the two-day tournament, which included three wins by pin and two run-away major decisions. The 12-3 win in the final of the 126-pound weight class on Saturday (Jan. 5) came over a past state qualifier in Webster-Schroeder’s Rosario Venniro.

In winning his class, Russo opened the tournament with a 16-3 win, then earned three straight pins, including one in 39 seconds in the quarterfinal match.

“He hasn’t been up against top notch competition but this past weekend he went against very tough wrestlers and he was handling them very well,” said Frontier head coach Joe Russo of his nephew, a two-time sectional champion coming into this season. “He beat a couple of past state qualifiers and basically dominated.”

The competition will only get tougher for Russo, who heads to the Eastern Championships this weekend in Sullivan County for an invite-only competition featuring some of the best wrestlers from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Massachusetts. Serving as one of the region’s top in-season tournaments, it will feature a variety of state champions in each weight class. Russo is fifth in the state’s first rankings.

Also at the tournament at NCCC, Frontier was represented by Evan Johnston, Joe Nowak and Roy Cuthbert. Coach Russo was impressed by the wrestlers he brought, including Johnston who is now 17-8 this year and has served as a team leader.

“A big part of wrestling well for these guys is going up against better competition,” coach Russo said. “All of them have improved not only from last year but also from the beginning of this year.”

As a team, Frontier is also coming along, proven by earning its first three wins of the season at the Dunkirk Duals over the holiday break.

Frontier had struggled in its heavyweight classes at the start of the year, so coach Russo was happy to see several of them come up with key performances at the competition to help Frontier garner victories.

Heavyweights Zach Reese, Josh Cuillo, Luke Bartone and Adam Gibson helped the Falcons to wins over Southwestern, 39-37, Niagara Falls, 41-40, and Lackawanna, 55-19. Frontier lost three other matches by nine-points or less during the two-day competition. Some of the heavyweights’ wins became the difference in close matches.

“These kids need these kind of matches,” coach Russo noted. “They figured out a way to win as a team which is nice.”

Russo again led the contingent of Frontier wrestlers, finishing 10-0 over the two days. Johnston was 8-2, while Kyle Genovese, Nowak and Cuthbert were also standouts. First-year senior Andy Harbison also came through with four wins.

“By far, it’s the best the team has wrestled,” coach Russo said. “I think it was important in showing that the kids are improving and learning. That’s what we want to see.”

After matches against Sweet Home on Jan. 9 and then competition at the Williamsville North Tournament on Jan. 12, Frontier will be hosting alumni Night on Tuesday, Jan. 15 inside the high school’s main gym. That night, the Falcons will be facing off against cross-town rival Hamburg.

Alumni are asked to show up at 5:30 p.m., a half hour before the start of the match, to sign in. The alumni will be recognized before the match with an introduction acknowledging their presence and that they were a part of the school’s wrestling program.

The past few years, Frontier has not held an alumni event, so as first-year head coach Joe Russo tries to build the program he said he’d like to take the time to recognize its roots and get past wrestlers involved and reinvigorated with rooting on the current Falcons.

Anyone with further questions can contact Joe Russo at 603-7107 or his brother, Neil Russo, the father of the school’ career wins leader, junior Rocco Russo, at 982-4412.

Also over the break, Lake Shore finished in third place after going 8-2 on the weekend at the Dunkirk Duals. Strong performances from the team came form Oshae Rodgers, Hunter Whitney and Freddy Eckles, all of whom went 9-1 for the tournament.

Rodgers won the last match of the tournament by pin with the team trailing 34-29 to help the Eagles win by one point and place third. Briar Dils and Anthony Zolnowski finished 8-2, while Matt Gruka and David Kilian finished 7-3. Also, strong performances came from Luke Catalano, Lawrence Jenkins, and Dylan Murphy. Frank Gelster, Michael Hontz, Brandon Joslyn and Antonio Perna also contributed to the place finish for the Eagles.

Lake Shore will be hosting the program’s fourth annual alumni night on Wednesday, Jan.16 in a match against West Seneca East. Alumni should be there by 5:30 to sign-in. The match starts at 6 p.m.

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