Staples Wrestlers Pin Hopes On Revived Program

Terry Brannigan calls himself a “passable” wrestler at Staples High School.

But the 1979 graduate says the sport was “hugely transformative.” In fact, he says, it was one of the best things he ever did. Wrestling helped Brannigan set goals, gain confidence, overcome obstacles, and take responsibility for himself.

Right after college, Nick Garoffalo — a wrestler who graduated from Staples a year before Brannigan — asked him to be his assistant coach.

“I was 23,” Brannigan recalls. “To this day, except for being a parent, it’s the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done.”

Nick Garoffalo (left) and Terry Brannigan, in their coaching days.

For nearly a decade, the pair formed a potent team. Helped by John Chacho’s PAL feeder program, they coached individual and team state champions. More importantly, they formed tight bonds between coaches, wrestlers and parents.

“It wasn’t about technique. It was about family,” Brannigan recalls. “We looked out for each other, on and off the mat.”

But “work and life got in the way.” Fellow wrestler Andy Lobsenz hired Brannigan at Dun & Bradstreet. Regretfully, he had no more time to coach.

Ten years ago, Brannigan moved back to Westport. He and his wife Laurie had 3 young sons. The oldest, Terry Jr. tried sports. But he was the smallest in his grade — boy or girl — and quiet. Nothing clicked.

As a Staples High School freshman 2 years ago, he decided to give wrestling another try.

Under a succession of young coaches, the program had fallen far from its glory days. Sometimes, there were only 5 wrestlers at a match. With 9 forfeits in the 14 weight classes, the Wreckers mathematically lost before even stepping on the mat.

As a freshman, Terry wrestled varsity. He learned the same lessons as his father: In this sport, size does not matter. Someone who studies wrestling and works hard can beat a pure athlete.

But Brannigan was appalled at the state of the program. “This can’t be his high school experience,” the father thought. “I want him to have what I had.”

Terry Brannigan Jr. controls an opponent. (Photo/Jose Villaluz)

As a sophomore, Terry Jr. had an excellent season. At the season-ending banquet — attended by only a dozen or so wrestlers — Brannigan began working to resurrect Staples wrestling.

Athletic director Marty Lisevick was all in. Brannigan went to work.

He told several key alumni, “we need your help — financially and emotionally.” Successful in fields like medicine, finance and business, they all had the same question: “How can we help?”

Lisevick agreed to move the wrestlers from the small, out-of-the-way football locker that had served as their wrestling room. When the winter season began, they would practice in the fieldhouse. It was roomier, and everyone could see what they were doing.

Snazzy uniforms were ordered. Brannigan and others built a new website, and a Facebook page. The Mat Men booster club grew too.

Another key was a coach who could also build a program. Fred Mills — the “guru” of Danbury’s strong youth program, and owner of Beast Wrestling Academy — signed on.

He brought 2 young assistants to the program. Alex Kappel — a teacher in Milford — is the son of a Hungarian national freestyle champion. Paulo Freitas is one of the winningest wrestlers in Danbury High School history. Both added immensely to the program’s credibility and impact. They served as head PAL coaches too, further tightening bonds between younger and high school grapplers.

Fred Mills (center), with Alex Kappel and Paulo Freitas.

Mills and Brannigan organized summer and fall clinics, sponsored by Westport PAL. Slowly, interest grew. Wrestlers got friends to come. The word was out: We’re doing something cool. Get in on the ground floor. You’ll get tougher. You’ll help us win. You’ll have fun.

In the fall, Brannigan helped recruit wrestlers. Some had been his son’s teammates on Staples’ undefeated freshman football team. The parents had formed tight bonds, and were eager to keep the magic going all winter long.

Forty wrestlers showed up on the first day. At the opening meet, 7 freshmen were in the lineup.

Proud members of the Staples High School wrestling team.

The program-building paid off — on and off the mat. The night before the Chacho Duals — a Staples-hosted event, honoring long-time coach and mentor John Chacho — a party drew dozens of parents to Wakeman Town Farm. They stayed until 1 a.m.

The next day — in dramatic, down-to-the-wire fashion — the Wreckers won the Duals. It was the first time they’d ever captured their own tournament.

Jacob Qiu was one of Staples’ many improved wrestlers this year. (Photo/Jose Villaluz)

The team caught fire. They earned votes in the Top 10 statewide poll. They finished 4th at the FCIAC (league) tournament.

They earned the respect of a growing number of fans — and of their coach.

Before accepting the job, Mills had been told that Westport kids are “soft.” To his surprise, he found them very tough competitors — and also very gentlemanly. (Like rugby, that’s the flip side of the sport.)

Team spirit was a hallmark of this year’s Staples wrestling team. They supported each other, every step of the way. (Photo/Jose Villaluz)

A few days ago, 119 people celebrated the season at Uncle Buck’s Fishbowl in Bridgeport. The team’s “house band” — led by Terry Brannigan Jr. and his freshman brother Eamonn, entertained. They’re called the Sing-lets (a play on the word for a wrestling uniform).

“To call you my best friends is wrong,” said co-captain JC Montoni in his speech. “You’re my brothers.

Co-captain JC Montoni concentrates intently before his opponent gets set. (Photo/Jose Villaluz)

Brannigan looked back with satisfaction on the year. And he was quick to spread praise for the turnaround.

“We are an army for good,” he says. He cited Lisevick, the coaches, and the Mat Men — including “superhero” mom and new Mat Men board member Jen Montoni — for the newly revived Staples wrestling program.

The wrestlers and their parents are already excited for next year. But first there’s one final meet.

Five Wreckers qualified for the high school national championships. On March 28 Terry Brannigan, JC Montoni, George Harrington, Jake Rizy and Nick Augeri head to Virginia Beach.

George Harrington — one of Staples’ best wrestlers ever — hoists one of the giant photos that were a centerpiece of Senior Night.

They and their parents will drive down together, in an RV. They’ll stay together in an Airbnb.

It’s the new Staples wrestling way. And — Brannigan promises — this is only the first round.

Pics Of The Day #706

Hundreds of people had a close shave today at the Westport Weston Family Y.

Boys and girls, men and women — they all lost a lot of hair.

And gained the great feeling of doing something for a fantastic cause.

The 15th annual St. Baldrick’s Event raised over $100,000 to fight childhood cancer. The money came from pledges made to all those folks who willingly donated their locks. They sat in solidarity with those who lose their own hair to chemotherapy.

The volunteer barbers were professional stylists. They took their work seriously.

Other funds came from a bake sale, and a chess challenge by Brent McCreesh. He was the impetus for the fundraiser a decade and a half ago, when he was diagnosed with neuroblastoma. Now 17, he’s been cancer-free for over 13 years.

Since that first event, “Team Brent” has raised over $4.2 million through St. Baldrick’s. That’s a lot of work, a lot of commitment — and a lot of hair.

(Photos/Madi McCreesh)

Photo Challenge #221

This past Monday, beach stickers went on sale.

For decades, that meant standing in line at the Parks & Rec office. Same for registration for tennis and golf handpasses, program registration — basically, if you wanted to do anything fun in Westport, you had to head down to Longshore, then stand in a long line in a tired old Mediterranean-style building opposite the much more handsome Inn.

These days, it’s all online. As a result, many new residents have no idea where Parks & Rec headquarters is.

The building was spruced up a few years ago. It’s much more user-friendly — and now it shows its age well, not poorly.

The roof of the Parks & Rec office was barely visible in last week’s Photo Challenge. Mostly, Chip Stephens’ shot showed trees and brush. (Click here to see.)

But Andrew Colabella, Fred Cantor, Clark Thiemann and John D. McCarthy have been to Longshore enough to pick that building out of the thicket.

Can you pick out where in Westport you’d see this week’s Photo Challenge? If you know, click “Comments” below.

(Photo/Bob Mitchell)

[OPINION] Kids: Keep Fidgeting!

Jaime Bairaktaris is a compassionate, caring and cool “06880” reader. He works as a volunteer EMS crew chief, environmental program teacher, public school para-educator, and ice cream scooper.

Jaime is also very observant. Last weekend, he saw something disturbing. He wants to share it with all “06880” readers. I’m honored to pass his message along.

This is for all the parents of fidgety, different, and “normal” kids.

On Saturday morning I began to eavesdrop on the booth behind me at Rye Ridge Deli. Sitting in back of me was a kid (I assumed he’s a middle schooler). Across the table from him was a man (I assumed it was his father). My booth shook slightly as the kid moved around.

“Sit still!” the man said. Each word bounced as he chuckled.

The boy stopped moving. The booth became still.

“Some kids, they can’t sit still. They can’t control themselves,” the man continued.

I could not help but listen.

“One kid gets angry and gets a whole teacher to themself,” the man said. “Imagine there’s 25 kids in a class with one teacher. That’s ‘normal.’ Now imagine every kid gets their own teacher because they can’t control themself.”

I grew angry. I was listening to a child learn about how to look at other kids as abnormal, in a world where no one is “normal.”

“Imagine you want to get a set of textbooks for the whole class, but instead one kid gets their own teacher,” he said curtly.

“Now it’s more expensive for everyone else.”

This child was being taught to look at other kids as “expenses.”

The man plunged on. “We try to make these kids as ‘normal’ as possible now. We used to just keep them home if we knew it wouldn’t work out.”

My coffee grew cold. I could not imagine the harm he had done. He had just taught a child a mindset that many people have fought over 7 decades to change.

I listened as he chewed his words for a second, then spilled out: “But I’m not saying what’s wrong or right. These are big decisions.”

Man at the deli: These are not decisions. These are children. 

My heart hurt for the child who had to listen to this.

My heart hurt for the kids who may now be looked at as expenses — and for the teachers who were equated to text books.

My heart hurt that I chose to eavesdrop and judge this man’s parenting, but did not stand up and stop it.

Parents: Please talk to your kids — at the deli, at home, in the car, before bed — and make sure they know to love all of their friends the same.

Kids: Please never think that you are an expense or a waste. You are the best asset our town will ever be prized with. Please keep fidgeting.

Signed, 

A fidgety, abnormal, 21-year-old

 

Pic Of The Day #705

Compo Beach jetty (Photo/Patricia McMahon)

Northern Lights May Be Seen This Far South

If seeing the Northern Lights is on your bucket list, scrap that trip to the Arctic.

Just step outside tonight.

Thanks to a geomagnetic storm — and clear skies — Connecticut residents may see the rare phenomenon this evening.

Check out these Northern Lights!

The Northern Lights — technically, Aurora Borealis — results from electrons colliding with the Earth’s atmosphere near the North Pole.

But — according to NBC Connecticut — our state is on the “very southern fringe” of areas that may be able to see the Lights this weekend.

Of course, this is not northern Canada or Scandinavia. Among the many differences: We have plenty of light pollution.

So if you’re on the lookout, NBC advises, find a dark area away from street and city lights.

Then look north.

(Hat tip: Chip Stephens)

We Choose To Include This Great Video

Jeff Staw has strong Westport ties.

He grew up here, then returned with his wife Amy in 2009. She was a TV producer, working with non-profits including Save the Children (when its offices were here), and Special Olympics.

The Staws moved to Colorado in 2016 (but come back every summer). Amy now works at her children’s elementary school, as an education assistant for students with severe special needs.

When teachers planned an Inclusion Week, they asked Amy to put her production expertise to good use.

The result — shot on an iPhone — is tremendous.

Sandy Staw notes proudly that her grandchildren are in the video. David talks about being left out (he’s the one with fish pictures in the background), while Juliet says she chooses to include “because everyone needs someone to play with.”

So far, the video has been seen only by the Staws’ Colorado school community. But “06880” readers in their former home town will appreciate it — and its message — too.

Amy and Jeff Staw, with David and Juliet.

Pic Of The Day #704

Last night’s rain flushed a ton of worms onto the Wakeman athletic fields asphalt. Happy spring! (Photo/Tim Fielding)

Friday Flashback #134

As Westport debates what’s needed to make Main Street lively again, we hear one chorus a lot: live music!

It’s been only a few years since Bobby Q’s rooftop concerts ended. But before that, there was Mark’s Place.

Located on the left side of Main Street — on the 2nd floor of what was, most recently, Acqua and Boca restaurants — Mark’s Place was a late ’60s/early ’70s club/bar/disco.

It was not the only venue for live music in Westport — there was the Nines Club at the old skating rink on Post Road East (owned, improbably, by orchestra leader Lester Lanin; Mitch Ryder, the Youngbloods and ? and the Mysterians played there); the Players Tavern, and a spot underneath the Ice Cream Parlor where I saw the Shangri-Las.

I’ve tried to find photos, with no success. Recently though, these images of Mark’s Place surfaced on Facebook, thanks to Rufus Eakin.

(Photos courtesy of Rufus Eakin)

Close your eyes. Remember the scene. Then click “Comments,” to share any groovy memories of Mark’s — and all those other music — places.

College Consultant: “Develop Who You Are. Don’t Cheat.”

The recent college admissions scandal — that gross, hydra-headed monster involving enormous bribes, test-taking ringers and fake photos of teenagers “playing” sports they never even tried — has mesmerized many Westport parents and students.

Plenty of educational consultants too.

Richard Avitabile

Richard Avitabile has seen both sides of the process. He’s directed college admissions offices. Since 2002 he’s been a counselor with Steinbrecher & Partners, the Westport-based group that helps students from around the globe make appropriate educational choices — not just for college, but secondary school, therapeutic programs and graduate options as well.

He’s a parent, too.

“This is so entwined with how our society thinks about education, college and success. It’s opened a Pandora’s box,” Avitabile says of the arrest of 50 adults — including the mastermind of the long-running scam — earlier this month.

“This story makes us all wonder what we’ve been doing with our professional careers.”

Yet he is wary of painting all educational consultants with the same brush.

“The goal of independent counselors is to help kids negotiate a complex process, and find a way to succeed,” he says.

“At our core, we’ve always felt that students’ hard work, and the interests they’ve developed, have been the reason for their success.”

After the news broke, he spoke with colleagues across the country. They believe the scandal involves “a very small number of applicants, and a very small number of colleges and universities.”

But because of the sensational nature of the offenses — along with the money and Big Names involved — the story has legs.

The internet was brutal after news broke that Lori Loughlin and her husband paid $500,000 for her 2 daughters to be admitted to the University of Southern California as crew athletes — though neither ever rowed.

“Most students get good grades and work on their test scores without having someone do it for them,” Avitabile notes. “We tell them, ‘develop your own life, and chances are good you’ll have great opportunities and options for college.'”

What Rick Singer, his clients and a few coaches and unscrupulous educators have done “devalues the worth of students,” says Avitabile. “These parents somehow felt they had to rig the system for their kids. I don’t think those families had to do that.

“I’ve spent a lot of time telling families there are opportunities, without playing this game. You can find the right college for your child. We’ve helped them do that for years.”

It’s not easy, he admits. Educational consultants help people with means (and plenty of pro bono clients) through the long process.

Steinbrecher & Partners — and many other educational consultants — often assist families who lack the financial or other resources that well-heeled clients have. “We truly enjoy working with students who are eager for an education, helping match them to a school that’s right for them,” Avitabile says.

Most educational consultants help students focus on their passions, and choose a school that is right for them.

He is not surprised that some people try to use the system for their own ends. He is, however, dismayed that Singer — someone he calls “not an educational professional” — developed “a band of people who helped others commit fraud. They were not helping students through the process. They were thieves.”

Parents often ask Avitabile and his colleagues, “how can I be sure my child is admitted to [insert name or type of school]?”

“We spent a lot of time explaining that there are no guarantees,” he says. “At some schools 75% of the applicants are qualified, but fewer than 10% get in.”

So his message to students (and parents) is: “Develop who you are, in and out of the classroom. Pursue experiences that interest you. Work on talents or activities that fit your personality and goals. Don’t do something because it’s what you think a college wants. Become the person you are proud of, then find the places that meet your characteristics.”

After 17 years as an educational consultant — and 3 decades before that in college admissions — Avitabile is convinced that many families can make excellent decisions about college.

“I love it when a student takes the lead, and parents support the goals their child has for education,” he says. “Our thrust from the beginning is to put students in charge.

“If we listen to them, we can avoid bad intentions. Students can achieve what they want without illegal actions.”