Sports Person of the Week
Fletcher Named New Coach for Middle School Wrestling Team
All-time East Haven wrestling standout Jeff Fletcher is taking the reins as the new head coach of the Joseph Melillo Middle School wrestling squad. (Photo courtesy of Anthony Verderame )
Heading into his sophomore year at East Haven High School, Jeff Fletcher had an opportunity to join the Yellowjackets’ wrestling team. While reluctant at first, Jeff decided to sign up and compete for then-Head Coach Bob Murphy’s squad. Jeff admits that Murphy “lit me up” on the mat, but says that his own spark for the sport started to ignite throughout that season.
Jeff graduated from East Haven in 1991. For the past three years, he served as an assistant coach with the wrestling team at Joseph Melillo Middle School. Now, Jeff is taking the next step after having recently been named the new head coach for middle school wrestling team.
Jeff’s love of wrestling has only grown bigger since his days of competing for the Easties. Jeff says that he’s excited to guide the next generation of grapplers as they work their way toward the high school team.
“Being in the program and helping out with the high school, as well, I felt like I was a bridge between the two schools. To have that common culture from 6th grade all the way up to 12th grade, the program ran really easy,” says Jeff, 47, an East Haven resident. “A blast-double is a blast-double if I told a 6th-grader to do it or [high school head coach Mark] Tolla told a 12th-grader to do it. That’s what we want to teach these kids. That’s what great programs do.”
Jeff put together one of the most prolific careers in the history of the East Haven wrestling team. Jeff posted an undefeated regular-season record in his junior and senior seasons, finishing in second place for the 112-pound weight class at the State Championship meet in each of those campaigns. As a senior, Jeff took second place at the State Open and came in sixth at the New England Championship. Jeff, an All-State and All-New England honoree, finished his high school career with a record of 103-27.
Jeff was also named one of the team’s captains for his senior season. Jeff says that holding the captain’s role helped shape him into the coach that he is today.
“You lead by example. I’m a firm believer that having the title ‘captain’ wasn’t just me being a senior and telling you what to do and not doing it myself. It’s being consistent in what you did and what you learned,” Jeff says. “Repetition equals perfection. If you keep nailing moves in practice, it’s going to become second nature for you. That’s how I was raised in the wrestling world.”
For his accomplishments on the mat, Jeff was inducted into the East Haven Alumni Association Hall of Fame in 2014, becoming the first Yellowjackets’ wrestler to earn that distinction. Jeff says that his induction showed him, along with many other people who were affiliated with the program, just how important the sport of wrestling is East Haven.
After graduating, Jeff became a volunteer coach with the high school wrestling team and later joined the United States Air Force. Jeff says that his love for being a wrestling coach really took off following the birth of his son Jack.
“As a toddler, he always wanted to wrestle and lock up with you,” Jeff says of Jack. “I realized that this kid was wrestling, and he didn’t even realize he was wrestling.”
Jack began wrestling for a team when he was seven. At the time, he was competing for coach Buster Jadach in Derby. Jeff was not only able to work with his son, but also learned a lot about coaching as a result of working with Jadach. When the Fletchers moved to East Haven, Jeff knew that Jack was going to wrestle for the Easties, saying, “We bleed blue and gold in my house.”
Jack, who was a captain for the Joseph Melillo team as an 8th-grader, will soon be entering his freshman year at the high school. As Jeff watches his son wrestle, he sees a little bit of himself out there and takes pride in the fact that Jack is passing on the family name.
“A lot of people say you can’t coach your own kid, but when it comes down to it, he follows instructions, and I’m very proud of him,” says Jeff. “Watching him wrestle is like watching myself through my own eyes, but he is getting his own ingredients and making his own recipe. It has been a pleasure to watch. One thing I always taught him was: Win or lose, stay humble. Always have a smile on your face and enjoy what you’re doing.”
Aside from being the middle school coach, Jeff also runs East Haven’s youth clinic and is a certified coach with USA Wrestling. Jeff is hoping that his background in the sport, coupled with his ties to East Haven, will benefit the town’s up-and-coming wrestlers as they progress from the youth level all to the way to the high school.
Two years ago, Jeff had one last opportunity to wrestle when he competed at the 2018 Nutmeg State Games. Jeff wrestled in the 172-pound open division, where he finished in fifth place out of 13 competitors.
Jeff received a lot of support from Jack, who was in his corner, while wrestling at the Nutmeg Games. When the roles were reversed, and Jeff was coaching Jack, he made sure that his son understood the importance of always walking off the mat with a smile, regardless of the result.
“It was the greatest feeling. My son got to see me win a couple of matches, and he got to see me lose a couple of matches. I walked off that mat smiling either way, because it was such a good feeling to be back on the mat,” Jeff says. “Would I do it again? No. I had my moment in the sun. It was a great feeling having my son see me win, but it’s time to pass the torch and teach it.”