Guilford Wrestling Building Around Young Core of Grapplers
Guilford High School wrestling coach Craig Vedrani is no stranger to roster turnover. Graduating talent — and having to replace it — is part of the job.
Yet this offseason was different for the Grizzlies. Ten seniors graduated, including three state champions, but this time Vedrani didn’t have another wave of upperclassmen waiting in the wings.
“There’s been years,” Vedrani said, “where we’ve had 10 seniors (leave), but then we have 10 juniors filling in. I’ve not had a year like this with so many new bodies.”
Indeed, Vedrani is in a unique position as he begins his 20th season at the helm. Of the 35 wrestlers on the Grizzlies roster, more than three-quarters — 27 — are freshmen and sophomores.
“We have a lot of new bodies,” Vedrani said. “We’re learning, we’re learning a lot. We’re looking to have a good year. I wouldn’t say it’s a rebuilding year, but it kind of is. We have a lot of young athletes who are learning how to wrestle, so it’s exciting.”
The senior class, albeit small, is quite strong. Alejandro Colberg-Martinez, a returning state place winner, is back at 170 pounds, along with Liam Alberti at 195. Rounding out the captains is Brianna Seixas, the defending girls division state champion, at 152.
Colberg-Martinez is the most experienced of the trio. As a junior, he placed sixth at 170 in the CIAC Class L state championships. Vedrani is counting on him to make up some of the scoring the Grizzlies lost to graduation. Edward Barlage (160), Brent Strand (182) and Christopher Murphy (195) all won their respective weight classes as seniors last year, helping Guilford to a fifth-place finish in Class L.
Much is expected of Alberti and Seixas, too. “Only one of them is really returning varsity, and that’s Alejandro,” Vedrani said. “Last year we had a really good group up top. They all graduated. (The returnees) have been in the shadows of three state champions last year. They’ve kind of been waiting behind them. This is kind of their year to shine.”
Other key returners include seniors Ebrahim Toma (182) and James Mahoney (182), junior Tim Hastings (220) and sophomores Dante Bilskis (120), Eli McDermott (132), Owen Pelletier-Stephens (145), Rocco Barbera (160) and Logan Murphy (heavyweight). Joining Vedrani on staff are assistant coaches Anthony Mancini, Michael Stankina and Neal Willis.
The Grizzles lost their first match 41-39 to Southern Connecticut Conference foe Branford on Dec. 14. On Dec. 17, they hosted the Guilford Invitational with 15 other teams. The next dual match comes on Dec. 21 vs. Morgan. Vedrani should learn a lot more about his team during that time.
“Alejandro at 170, he’s probably expecting the most out of himself,” Vedrani said. “All the other ones, they’re all about the same, they’re all plugging away here. They were all about .500 wrestlers last year.”
Vedrani also adds, “I’m just excited to get the season going. Rock and roll. We’re excited to see those guys in action. A lot of these guys we’ve never seen wrestle in a live competition.”
The Grizzlies held their first practice on Nov. 28. Since then, to help integrate the newcomers, Vedrani has simplified most of his teachings.
“We’re literally going step-by-step,” he said. “We’re going from a very high level of wrestling to the basics, but it’s kind of like that every year. You always have new kids in the room. You really have to differentiate your instruction to all levels. Sometimes it’s difficult to do that in a room because you’re trying to run a practice at every level.”
The reality is, as Vedrani knows, nothing beats experience. To that point, he’s looked into getting his younger wrestlers more mat time through junior varsity tournaments. So far, he likes the potential he sees in the group.
“We just have to get more mat time,” Vedrani said. “It’s almost better coaching kids that have never wrestled as opposed to coaching kids who have bad habits. It’s a chance for us to reset our culture the way we want, though it’s kind of always been the way we want.”
The roster, while young, is also big enough that Vedrani hasn’t had to worry about filling out every weight class. Teams that can’t find themselves are forfeiting valuable points during competitions. Best believe, that is not something Vedrani takes for granted.
“There’s only 14 weights,” he said. “We’re filling all the weights, which is good. The lower weights and heavier weights, sometimes it’s hard to find bodies. We’ve got multiple lightweights and heavyweights. We’ve just got to teach them how to wrestle.”
Plenty of opportunities are ahead, including meets with Ledyard, Foran and New Fairfield on Dec. 23 and Haddam-Killingworth on
Jan. 4. Sandwiched between those are the Whippet Duals on Dec. 30 at Windham High School.
While the expectations may not be as high at the moment for Guilford, Vedrani is relatively optimistic about the direction of his program. He fully expects to see progress before too long.
“It takes patience, but it’s part of the job,” he said. “We enjoy it. It’s actually exciting this year. We have a great parent group and support group. Our wrestling group is fantastic.”
When asked about the rest of the SCC, Vedrani — unsurprisingly — singled out defending State Open champion Xavier as the favorite and said perennial contenders like Foran should be strong as well. But he also knows there’s something to be said for taking a wait-and-see approach.
“COVID’s really shaking things up,” he said. “Some teams lost a lot of people and some teams have gained a lot of people. I feel like a lot of teams are like us, with an influx of kids who have not wrestled.”