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Mark Tolla is in the midst of his first season as head coach of the East Haven wrestling team after serving as an assistant coach for the past four years. (Photo courtesy of Mark Tolla )
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The Yellowjackets’ wrestling program saw a shift in leadership in the 2014-’15 season, when 2003 graduate Lou Rivellini was named head coach of the team at East Haven High School. Rivellini brought on his colleague Mark Tolla, who lives in town and teaches at the high school, to be an assistant coach. After four seasons, the duo decided to switch roles this year, and Mark became East Haven’s head coach for the 2018-’19 campaign.
“I think we refined our roles. Anybody that knows me knows I’m more talkative than Lou. The kids were joking, saying they actually thought I was the head coach already,” Mark says. “Behind the scenes, I’m the guy that does a lot of the speeches, and Lou was happy with that. He doesn’t aspire to those things, so I think my personality is more to that role.”
Mark and Rivellini are working well together in their new positions and have guided the Yellowjackets to a record of 15-3 thus far this season. The fact that both coaches are in the high school on a daily basis has paid major dividends for both their relationship and the team.
“That’s the No. 1 key factor. Having Lou and I in the hallway, we can promote our team, have access to the kids, reach out to them,” says Mark. “Lou is personable and built a culture through the word-of-mouth, and these kids can see how passionate our team is. It’s grown into something where we’re able to acquire so many new kids that are interested in wrestling. It’s been great.”
The Yellowjackets have been generating respect throughout Connecticut this winter. With two quality coaches at the helm, Director of Athletics Anthony Verderame is expecting big things for the team in the coming years.
“Coach Tolla and our wrestling program are completely focused. I am extraordinarily proud with the entire team environment and competitiveness,” Verderame says. “The results are increased individual and team success and an electric camaraderie.”
Mark says the Easties were short on both numbers and experience when he first came to the program. However, the times have certainly changed as East Haven is currently sporting a deep roster full of seasoned grapplers.
“Initially, it was tough, because the kids we did recruit had to go out there right away, which made it difficult for them to join the program. Now, we look at our roster, and there isn’t a starter that hasn’t been wrestling for less than three years,” says Mark. “When kids join, there isn’t that pressure of them needed to be varsity starters anymore. It gives us time to teach the techniques well and allows them to put the work in first. This is why we’ve seen a rise in where we are and we can compete with the top programs in the state.”
Mark competed in the 140- and 145-pound weight classes while wrestling for Danbury High School. After graduating, he attended the University of Connecticut and Western Connecticut State University. In 1998, Mark joined the staff in the Danbury wrestling program and then coached the middle school team for 12 years. When he took a break from coaching in 2000, Mark became a referee.
“Officiating, I found to be exhilarating. It was a new challenge, and I learned so much more about the sport of wrestling—from different perspectives to little nuances and rules,” says Mark. “Technical aspects I thought I knew, I realized I didn’t, and it just helped me become a better wrestling person, which led to me being a better wrestling coach today.”
Mark eventually got back into the coaching game and is excited to now be leading a growing program in East Haven. Mark says he wants the Yellowjackets to keep getting bigger and better as they continue their climb up the state ladder.
“The ultimate goal, and the one we share with our kids, is we want to win a class title. Anything short is not getting to where we ultimately want to be,” Mark says. “We’re probably still five years away from being able to compete with a Danbury or Bristol Eastern, but we’re in year four of running youth clinics where, depending on the time of year, we have 20 to 40 kids. We’re just trying to get kids more involved to be successful and have 30 or 50 matches under their belts before they get to the high school. To be a consistent program, that’s what you have to do.”
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