Wrestling more than a sport to Holyoke's seniors

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  • Holyoke’s Anthony Cruz grapples with Monument Mountain’s Luke Hartshorn in their 182-pound wrestling match Wednesday in Holyoke. Cruz won 10-1. The Knights prevailed 39-36 on senior night. STAFF PHOTO/KYLE GRABOWSKI

  • Holyoke’s Richie Rodriguez holds down Monument Mountain’s Sam St. Peter in their 220-pound wrestling match Wednesday in Holyoke. Rodriguez won via pin. The Knights prevailed 39-36 on senior night. STAFF PHOTO/KYLE GRABOWSKI

  • Holyoke’s Chris Perez battles from the bottom against Monument Mountain’s Westley Vansant in their 285-pound wrestling match Wednesday in Holyoke. Vansant won via pin. The Knights prevailed 39-36 on senior night. STAFF PHOTO/KYLE GRABOWSKI

  • Holyoke’s Russell Rivera works over Monument Mountain’s Andrew Albert in their 160-pound wrestling match Wednesday in Holyoke. Rivera won via pin. The Knights prevailed 39-36 on senior night. STAFF PHOTO/KYLE GRABOWSKI

  • Holyoke’s Jaime Rivera works on Monument Mountain’s Zeb Lasko in their 145-pound wrestling match Wednesday in Holyoke. Lasko won via pin. The Knights prevailed 39-36 on senior night. STAFF PHOTO/KYLE GRABOWSKI

  • Holyoke’s Manuel Fernandez Guzman takes down Monument Mountain’s Lukas Forouhar Graff in their 138-pound wrestling match Wednesday in Holyoke. Fernandez Guzman won via pin. The Knights prevailed 39-36 on senior night.  STAFF PHOTO/KYLE GRABOWSKI

Staff Writer
Published: 2/3/2022 4:48:21 PM
Modified: 2/3/2022 4:46:52 PM

HOLYOKE – Chris Perez sat with his back against the Dean Tech gym wall, his purple singlet off his shoulders and his head in his hands.

Gauze plugged both his nostrils and tears dripped from his eyes. His last high school wrestling match in Holyoke – his home – ended with his back on the mat, the referee slamming the canvas to signal a pin and his opponent’s arm in the air.

His career isn’t over with the impending Western Massachusetts Division 2 championships a week away, but an important part of it is. The Knights put the “Holyoke” in Holyoke wrestling, and crafted a culture that breeds success on and off the mat.

“We've been through a lot in our lives. Wrestling is like a life thing. Once we do wrestling, we put it in our lives. When we grow up, we know we can't give up,” fellow Holyoke senior Richie Rodriguez said. “We know when life throws stuff on us, they can't give up so if we're on the mat, we're not gonna give up. That's why we put our hearts all on the mat.”

Holyoke ultimately won the senior night dual against Monument Mountain, 39-36, on Wednesday, but Perez still needed a hand to stand back up and join the handshake line. Wrestling is unique as a sport in that it’s one of the most intimate, individual athletic pursuits, but grounded heavily in the team and the community it creates in the wrestling room.

“We get to put our hearts and souls on the mat every day when we have an actual season,”  Holyoke senior Anthony Cruz said. “Last year was a very big bump in the road for us.”

The COVID-19 pandemic affected wrestling more than any other sport. Because it requires athletes to be close to each other by its very nature, it was inherently unsafe. The MIAA decided not to allow it during its traditional winter season or the Fall II bridge season last year. It was moved to the spring and largely held outdoors.

“To have the sport back meant everything to me,” Rodriguez said. “This right here keeps kids in school, this right here gives kids another way to move up in life.”

Monument Mountain took a large lead early in the dual, but Holyoke battled back in the upper weights behind its seniors to secure a victory under minimal lighting focused solely on the mat. The Knights were down in some of the matches as well but found a way forward.

“Fighting back is something we embody here. It’s something all wrestlers should embody,” Holyoke coach Vin Silano said. “We’re really happy with the way our team has been able to do that throughout the year.”

Rodriguez helped seal the win with a pin at 220 pounds. He took Sam St. Peter down in both the first and the second periods before working his way to the finish.

“It means the world to me to come out with the seniors that I spent all four years with, grinded with, cried with and did everything with,” Rodriguez said. “This is amazing. I love it, this is the best senior night that could ever happen.”

However all of their careers end in the postseason, Holyoke’s seniors know their impact will be felt long after they’re gone.

“This team’s definitely a blessing. This isn’t the last of us. We’ve created a culture, and this culture is going to rise to the top,” Holyoke’s Russell Rivera said. “People are going to start recognizing us, who we are. We’re Holyoke. People look down on us, but we’re much more than people think.”

Kyle Grabowski can be reached at kgrabowski@gazettenet.com. Follow him on Twitter @kylegrbwsk.
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