Category Archives: Sports

Pic Of The Day #730

Compo Beach basketball court (Photo/Mark Jacobs)

Liz Fry Conquers Cook Strait

Cook Strait separates the North and South Islands of New Zealand. It connects the Tasman Sea and Pacific Ocean, and is near the capital city of Wellington.

It’s beautiful. It teems with dolphins and whales. It’s also got some of the most dangerous and unpredictable waters in the world.

There’s no reason you or I would even think of swimming Cook Strait.

But you and I are not Liz Fry.

The 1976 Staples High School graduate is a long distance swimmer.

Liz Fry

Not just any one of that hardy breed, though. Liz has already completed the “Triple Crown of Open Water Swimming”: the English Channel, California’s Catalina Channel and circumnavigating Manhattan Island.

Twice.

She double-crossed the English Channel (England to France, then back). She’s swum 2 of the Great Lakes, and in Japan.

But — until earlier this month — Liz had never swum Cook Strait.

There were plenty of reasons why, even beyond the danger and distance. Liz is not a professional swimmer. With an undergraduate degree from UConn and a master’s from Fordham, she’s got a thriving career in finance. She works with global markets on tax initiatives.

Fortunately, today’s technology allows her to work remotely. So — even though training and preparing for a long distance swim takes a spectacular amount of time and effort — Liz is able to pursue her passion.

She loves the physical challenge of fighting tides, jellyfish, hunger and pain to get from Point A to Point B (though the route she takes is seldom the shortest).

Liz also loves to travel. She sees new places, meets new people and learns new cultures. “I’m living the dream,” she says.

New Zealand, though, was a dream deferred. Liz first hoped to swim the strait in 2012. But Superstorm Sandy hit, and its aftermath took precedence.

Four years ago, she applied for one of the few Cook Strait slots. High winds and treacherous seas limit the number of attempts.

A ferry plows through Cook Strait.

She was chosen for a final spot this season. It’s fall now Down Under, with air temperature already dropping to the 50s.

Liz’s entourage included her sister Peggy, a 1975 Staples grad now living in Seattle who has served as crew chief on previous swims; Peggy’s husband, and Staples ’83 friend Debbie Masso.

In late March they all gathered in Wellington. As 50-mile an hour winds blew — with gusts up to 80 — Liz trained in a nearby pool.

Word came that she might be able to go soon. She adjusted her eating and sleeping schedules. But she would not find out until 7 p.m. Friday that she’d be swimming early the next morning.

Liz was accompanied by a large “mother ship,” and a smaller Zodiac. Peggy was in that boat. She fed her sister, and kept her upbeat.

Liz Fry prepares for her swim.

Liz swam with Nora Toledano — the first Mexican woman to complete 6 of the famed Oceans 7 open water channel swims. Cook Strait would be her last, after the Molokai Channel, English Channel, Catalina Channel, Tsugaru Strait, the Strait of Gibraltar and the most brutal: the North Channel between Ireland and Scotland, ice cold and filled with jellyfish .

New Zealand mark Liz’s 6th of the 7 famed swims. Only the North Channel remains.

The pair left from a rocky shoreline near Wellington. Their destination — Arapawa Island, a small spit of land — was 18 miles away as the crow flies.

But Liz and Nora are not crows. Strong currents and gnarly conditions added quite a bit to their route.

The swimmers made good headway. At the 5-hour mark, they were about 5 miles from shore. Liz figured they were 2 hours away.

Liz Fry (farthest from the Zodiac) and Nina Toledano, in action.

But within minutes the water temperature dropped from the 60s to 57. Currents picked up. It took 4 1/2 hours for the women to complete their swim.

The last hour was the toughest swimming Liz has ever done. Normally, she was fed every 45 minutes. But the waters were so strong, it was too difficult to eat.

Still, she felt joyful. “I was working hard,” Liz notes. “I could see the shore coming closer.”

Finally, she and Nora were there. They hauled themselves up a sheer wall. Together, they had conquered Cook Strait.

Liz Fry, at the sheer wall ending point: Perano Head (Marlborough), on South Island.

I’m exhausted just writing this. I can’t fathom what a long distance swim feels like.

Yet Liz knows. “I love it!” she exults. But it’s more than just the satisfaction of overcoming extreme physical and mental challenges.

“I’m fairly introverted,” Liz says. “Swimming has helped me come out of my shell. I’ve met incredible people, and helped others meet their goals. I’ve seen the most beautiful places. And it’s fun!”

What was not fun was the trip back. She arrived home. Her luggage did not.

Which raises the question: If Liz Fry can swim from North Island to South Island, why can’t Air New Zealand put her bags on the right plane?

But — true to form — she is undaunted.

Liz is already looking forward to another “Sound” swim: Westport’s Point to Point, at Compo Beach.

It was one of the first “long distance” ones she did.

She’s “shore” come a long way.

(Hat tip: Debbie McGinley)

Charlie Capalbo: An Inspiring Update

For 2 years, “06880” readers have followed the saga of Charlie Capalbo. The Fairfield Ludlowe High School senior and star hockey goalie — grandson of Westport writer Ina Chadwick and Westport native Richard Epstein; son of Staples grad Jennifer Wilde Capalbo — has battled 2 separate cancers. It’s an astonishing, inspiring story. Click here to read last month’s update.

Charlie is now strong enough to respond. He sure inherited his grandmother’s writing gene. He says:

Hi friends! Finally I am feeling well enough to post an update on my own.

Two and a half weeks ago we moved from Boston Children’s Hospital to Spaulding Rehab Hospital in Charlestown. It was hard to say goodbye to all of my nurses, doctors and other care providers, but it was exciting to move to the next step in recovery.

Many of you probably saw the video of me walking out of my transplant isolation room at BCH through the bubble parade in the hallway to transfer to Spaulding. I worked really hard with my PT and OT providers at BCH for months to be able to walk that stretch.

My room at Spaulding is unreal. It has amazing views of Boston Harbor, which makes getting up early for 3 hours of therapy sessions a little easier.

Charlie Capalbo with rehab specialists at Spaulding Hospital.

On my first day here I was asked at least 5 times what my goals are. The first time I said I just wanted to be able to walk again. But as I said it I knew I wanted more. So I said “to get back to being a normal person, like my regular life.” I want to get back on the ice. I want to go back to school. I want to do everything I used to do, and I’m determined to get there as quickly and safely as possible.

My appetite is coming back. My feeding tube was pulled last week. I enjoy eating regular food again, and my doctors are working with Spaulding to wean my painkillers and many of my other meds (there are some I’ll need to stay on for a while).

In the few weeks that I’ve been at Spaulding I’ve already switched from a walker to a quad cane, to a smaller footprint quad cane, to a single point cane, and now I can walk mostly without a cane. My PT and OT therapists provide a rigorous daily schedule of workouts for me. My parents and everyone here are blown away by how much progress I’ve made. They’ve done such a good job that we’ve agreed on a discharge date of April 16 — much sooner than expected!

When Charlie Capalbo walked for the first time, hockey sticks banged throughout the isolation unit. Check out the Boston Bruins balloon too.

When I get home I’ll be in outpatient PT so I can keep getting stronger and closer to meeting my goals. I’ll also come to Boston every Thursday (the Jimmy Fund Clinic at Dana Farber) for checkups. I’ve already been there twice since moving to Spaulding and my counts have been great – thank you Will! (Charlie’s brother Will was a match for a bone marrow transplant.)

I’ve enjoyed seeing friends and family while here at rehab. I was especially honored to have had a very special visitor. The legendary Jack Parker (and his super nice wife Jackie) came to see me! Jack is the former Boston University men’s ice hockey coach. He spent 48 years at BU as a player, assistant coach and then head coach (for 40 years), and is an incredible man.

I’ve been really lucky to see visitors while here. I’m only able to because I’m still in a hospital setting, but once I go home I’ll have to be in protective isolation for a few months. This means that nobody can come into our house except for me, Will, my mom and dad. I’m also not allowed to go to any indoor public places or other private homes. I can visit with people outdoors, so I can see friends on our patio for the summer. I’m also allowed to go to a restaurant with outdoor tables, so I’m hoping we have a lot of good weather coming for spring and summer!

Will and Charlie Capalbo, post-transplant.

I’ll be on a strict post-transplant diet for about a year, which means that I have to be really careful of what I eat or drink to avoid infection, so please don’t be offended if I can’t eat something you share with me!

Yesterday my parents left me alone (not exactly alone — there were plenty of nurses and doctors around) for the day for the first time since October. They watched Will receive an Inspiration Award at the All-State hockey banquet. I really wish I could have been there in person, but I’m so happy they honored him with the award. I’m also glad to have a video of him receiving it. I’m so proud of my brother!

Thank you to everyone who supports us. You know who you are. We couldn’t have gotten through the last six months (really the last 2 years) without you guys! I can’t wait to be back to a normal life so I can pay it forward.

And an extra shout-out to our friends and family members who are always here for us…the kind who show up for whatever we need, including taking time off from work and driving for hours in Friday rush hour traffic to another state just to attend a 6-minute send off bubble parade! — with Jennifer Wilde Capalbo and 2 others at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital.

Charlie and his mother, Jennifer Wilde Capalbo.

Staples Books Its Own March Madness

Last year, as Villanova battled its way through March Madness to the NCAA basketball championship, the Staples High School English department conducted its own bracket.

To Kill a Mockingbird beat out fellow Final 4 contenders Pride and Prejudice, The Diary of Anne Frank and 1984 to win the first-ever Favorite Book Ever tournament.

Mary Katherine Hocking

‘Nova did not repeat as 2019 champs. Nor did Harper Lee’s classic novel.

In the case of the Wildcats, they weren’t good enough. But for the books, they changed the rules.

This year’s contest — organized by teachers Mary Katherine Hocking and Rebecca Marsick, with help from Tausha Bridgeforth and the Staples library staff — was for Best Book to Movie Adaptation.

Thirty-two contenders were chosen. Voting was done online. Large bracket posters near the English department and library kept interest high.

As always, there were surprises. Some classic book/film combinations — like The Godfather — fell early. Others that Hocking expected to be less popular (Twilight, Little Women) battled hard.

The field ranged far and wide, from Romeo and Juliet and Gone With the Wind to Lord of the Flies and Frankenstein.

Hocking’s email updates to students and staff were fun to read. Before the final — after Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone crushed The Hunger Games, and The Princess Bride edged The Help — she wrote: “The moment we’ve all been waiting for! Westley versus Weasley, Vizzini versus Voldemort, Humperdinck versus Hermione.”

We’ll let Hocking announce the winner.

She wrote:

The Princess Bride has taken a rogue bludger to the head, losing to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. With a final score of 94-49, this year’s House Cup, Quidditch World Cup, Triwizard Cup all go to Harry Potter and Queen JK.

Remember, one can never have enough socks, and one can never have enough books to fill the time.  Please check out any or all of these books from your local library as we head into spring break.

She and Marsick are already planning next year’s contest.

Wahoo!

UConn, Southern CT Soccer Teams Make Sports History At Staples

When the University of Connecticut men’s soccer team plays Southern Connecticut State University on Saturday, April 2o, local history may be made.

It could be the first time a college game — in any sport — has been held in Westport. The match is set for 1 p.m., at Staples High School’s Loeffler Field.

But even if that’s been done before, this is a historic encounter. The 2 teams — UConn, a Division I national powerhouse, and SCSU a storied Division II program — seldom meet.

It’s a significant moment. And it’s at Staples’ famed Hill, because of a very important Westport connection.

The match is a fundraiser for the Dennis Murphy Scholarship. It benefits players on the Southern Connecticut team.

Dennis Murphy

Murphy was one of Staples’ most legendary, competitive and hard-nosed players. He played on the Wreckers’ state championship squads in 1971 and ’72, then headed to Southern. As a captain and, later, assistant coach under Bob Dikranian, Murphy helped lay the groundwork for the Owls’ success.

Murphy spent many years as coach of all age groups, including Westport’s powerhouse Bridge Grille teams, and with the Westport Soccer Association. He died in 2016, after a long battle with cancer.

Southern established a scholarship fund in his name. UConn is happy to help raise funds for the scholarship program — and not just because coach Ray Reid began his career at Southern. Murphy’s brother Kenny (Staples ’76) was a UConn captain. He is now the head coach at Connecticut College, in New London.

The April 20 match is a chance for soccer fans of all ages to watch 2 excellent college teams — on the same field where Murphy and his 3 brothers (including Kenny, Ed ’74 and Kevin ’77) played. Owl and Husky players will be available after the match too, for photos and autographs.

The Staples, SCSU and UConn soccer programs all support this event. Donations will be collected there for the fund. If you can’t be there — or want to contribute now — click here, or send a check to Southern Connecticut State University Foundation, 501 Crescent Street, New Haven, CT 06515. Write “Dennis Murphy Scholarship” on the memo line.

Soccer Players Give Bridgeport The Boot

Some Westport teenagers do community service far from home. They build toilets in Honduras, or schools in Africa.

Some do what they can much closer to home.

Thanks to Staples High School boys soccer reserve (junior varsity) coaches Russell Oost-Lievense and Reilly Lynch, 10 varsity and reserve Wreckers are spending the spring working with younger boys and girls just a few miles away in Bridgeport.

This is the 3rd year that Russell — himself a former Staples captain, now a special education teacher — has worked with Brighter Lives for Kids. The non-profit runs in-school and after-school programs for underserved youngsters.

He organizes the soccer component. Last year, 8 Staples players volunteered at the Cesar Batalla School. Twice a week for 8 weeks, they helped 60 boys and girls learn to play and love soccer. They also mentor the kids.

From left: Ana Simunovic, Sam Liles, Vig Kareddy, Callum Wisher, Russell Oost-Lievense and Brendan Lynch, with their eager young players in Bridgeport.

This spring, Russell has expanded the program. It’s now twice a week for 10 weeks, and involves 80 children.

One of the driving forces — last year and this — is current junior Carter Bassler.

He enlisted teammates Emerson Anvari, Surya Balaji, Colin Corneck, Josh DeDomenico, Sam Liles, Brendan Lynch, Patricio Perez Elorza, Enzo Valadares and Callum Wisher. Former player Vignesh Kareddy also participates.

It’s a fantastic, important program. 100% of Cesar Batalla students qualify for state-provided breakfast and lunch by the school, because they fall into the highest bracket of poverty. They have little access to sports, beyond this program.

Of course, it takes money — for equipment, transportation and more. Click here for a GoFundMe page.

In addition, soccer shoes and shin guards can be donated in Westport. A box is set up at the front door of 40 Sturges Commons (with security camera), between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m.

Westport teenagers do plenty of good things, when no one is watching. Whether it’s halfway around the globe, or just up the road.

Mark Noonan: Ghana’s Head Phobian Returns

A lifetime of playing and working in the sports world taught Mark Noonan to embrace every new challenge, and work hard to achieve each new goal.

He’s got quite a resume. In 1981 and ’82, he helped lead the Staples High School soccer team to a pair of undefeated seasons and state championships. In 1986, he was a key part of Duke University’s national soccer title — the first for the school in any sport.

Noonan served as director of integrated marketing for Gatorade, chief marketing officer for US Soccer, executive vice president of Major League Soccer, and chief commercial officer for the World Surf League.

Last year, Noonan took on a new title: CEO of Accra’s Hearts of Oak. With 10 million fans — 1/3 of Ghana’s entire population — and a history dating back to 1911, they’re one of Africa’s top teams.

Mark Noonan, with Hearts of Oak players and staff.

Ghana is one of the top producers of soccer talent in the world. Noonan believes they can win a World Cup, if properly developed and supported.

But, like many African clubs, Hearts of Oak were not getting top dollars in transfer fees for their players. Their youth academies and training facilities were not on the level of European and South American clubs. Shady agents and managers poached players long before they were physically, mentally or emotionally ready to leave the country and their families.

Noonan was hired to help remedy that.

He also had a vision: for Hearts to make a difference in the lives of its players and supporters, making them proud and happy in the face of challenging circumstances.

He and his wife Katie — an accomplished musician — headed overseas. They were excited by Ghana’s unique culture, tropical climate and thriving highlife music scene.

Katie Noonan (left) and friend at a Ghana market.

Growing up in Westport helped prepare Noonan for the move. As a community that “valued diversity, creativity and had a real soccer culture,” he felt prepared to understand and respect his very different new home.

But nothing prepared him for the big egos and massive corruption he found. Or the entrenched ways of doing things, unlike anything he’d ever seen in the sports or business world.

Just a week after he arrived, the government shut down Hearts’ 40,000-seat stadium, for renovations. There had been no warning, or planning.

Noonan scrambled to find alternatives. The Phobians — that’s the team’s nickname, a legacy of the fear they were said to inspire in opponents’ hearts — played 7 “home” games in facilities up to 3 hours away.

Mark Noonan, with Phobian supporters.

But that was minor, compared to a corruption scandal that rocked Ghanaian soccer. An investigation showed dozens of people, from top administrators and team executives to referees, accepting bribes.

The president of Ghana dismantled the country’s Football Association. Its head was banned by FIFA for life. All professional matches were canceled.

Then one of the key journalists who produced the undercover documentary was shot dead. (Noonan stresses that gun violence in Ghana is very rare, compared to the US. He, his wife and daughters always felt very safe.)

It’s been 9 months since the league was shut down. To keep the team going, Noonan arranged friendly matches.

He also sold players. He is proud that — unlike nearly every other club — Hearts never missed a payroll. Nearly 100 people rely on Hearts for their livelihoods.

Hearts of Oak players and coaches at training.

Noonan is proud of bringing “stability, credibility, transparency and professional management” to the club. He revamped the technical department, re-branded the club, engaged supporters, brought Umbro in as a world-class supplier, moved the team to a new training facility, and began to build a youth academy.

He learned a lot about a different part of the world. Accra is a city of 8 million people, with 5-star hotels sitting not far from third-world infrastructure.

“Living in a developing country is hard,” Noonan admits. “I had a nice apartment, a car, a driver, a chef and housekeeping — and still it was not easy.

“Travel was difficult. The roads are bad. There’s a lot of pollution.”

For the first time, Noonan experienced life as a minority. He went days without seeing another white person.

Mark and Katie Noonan, with Phobian supporters.

He says that while he was respected for his credentials, and his work to help change lives, there was an undercurrent that a white person (“obroni,” in local lingo) could not understand Ghana’s culture.

English is the national language. But whenever people did not want Noonan to know something, they switched into a local dialect.

Yet Noonan is grateful for the “amazing” experience. Africa is a place of stunning beauty. He calls the mountains, plains and beaches “breathtaking.”

Ghanaians truly like Americans, Noonan says. Many have relatives in the US, or want to come here. He was often stunned by gifts of homemade clothes, or invitations into homes. He will never forget those kindnesses.

Praise for Mark Noonan, on social media (from Obama!).

“I’ve never been in a job before that could change people’s lives,” he says. He points with pride to What’sApp messages he continues to receive. “Father, we miss you,” his players and club supporters say.

They miss him because, this month — facing so much greed, corruption, and the continued lack of a league — Noonan reluctantly returned to the US. He’s still advising Hearts of Oak. But he’s reopening Focal Sport — the consulting business through which he once worked with MLS, the British Open, the US Tennis Open and the international basketball association FIBA, and helped negotiate Citi Field naming rights — and is looking for more opportunities.

In other words: Mark Noonan is once again setting up new goals.

Rob Simmelkjaer’s Ground-Breaking Persona

As a kid, Rob Simmelkjaer’s grandmother always told him: “If you’re going to open your mouth, the best thing is to ask a question.”

Questions are “a sign of respect, curiosity, a way to learn,” notes the Westporter. “They’re more than just an opening.”

Simmelkjaer has had lots of chances to ask questions. He’s a former member of the Zoning Board of Appeals, and a 2017 candidate for second selectman.

Rob Simmelkjaer

He’s been an on-air contributor for NBC Sports, and as vice president of NBC Sports Ventures was involved with the radio network and podcasts. He previously worked at ESPN and ABC News, where as anchor and correspondent he covered the Virginia Tech shootings and President Ford’s funeral.

Simmelkjaer — who majored in government and philosophy at Dartmouth College, and holds a law degree from Harvard University — is a huge fan of NPR’s StoryCorps. In those short Friday segments people interview relatives and friends, unearthing tales rich in drama and inspiration.

So it’s no surprise that Simmelkjaer — who was NBC Sports’ “in-house entrepreneurial expert” — is now striking out on his own.

Or that his new venture — Persona — is all about asking questions.

Simmelkjaer calls Persona “the first social video platform dedicated to interviews.” It’s like Instagram, he says — but with conversations, not photos.

The app makes interviewing easy. It helps interviewers frame great questions, makes sharing interviews easy, and enables users to discover interesting interviews on similar (or totally unrelated) topics.

Rob Simmelkjaer is at ease in front of a camera. Persona will make the rest of us feel comfortable too.

Persona is not yet ready for prime time. Simmelkjaer is developing a prototype. He’s slowly releasing content on other platforms, like YouTube, to grow the brand.

It’s an exciting project. Just the other day — in the aftermath of the massacre at a New Zealand mosque — Simmelkjaer interviewed Imam Mohamed Abdelati of the Bridgeport Islamic Community Center.

Westport is an important part of Simmelkjaer’s process. Interviews with people like State Senator Will Haskell and attorney Josh Koskoff Takes On The NRA — interesting folks with intriguing insights — are part of the plan.

Simmelkjaer’s very first Persona interview was with Victoria Gouletas. She’s the ZBA member who was paralyzed a year ago, when a heavy tree branch fell on her during a windstorm.

Gently but insightfully, he asks Gouletas about the accident, how she handled the devastating news, and the effect on her family. As she talks about her children, they chatter in the background. Despite the tragedy, the interview is warm, personal and uplifting.

That’s Simmelkjaer’s goal with Persona. It launches officially later this year.

Keep your eyes and ears open.

And when you open your mouth, follow Rob Simmelkjaer’s grandmother’s advice: Ask a question.

Half A Century Young: Stew Leonard’s, And The Miracle Mets

Alert “06880” reader/Terex director of internal communications/ 1970 Staples graduate/longtime New York Mets fan William Adler writes:

1969 was a magic time: Woodstock, and a man on the moon. It was also the summer of the Miracle Mets. New York’s lovable losers went from last to first in a historic season — capped by a seemingly impossible victory over the mighty Baltimore Orioles in the World Series.

Fifty years ago too, Stew Leonard’s store was opening.

At Staples High School, students like my classmate Phil Gambaccini raced home from school to catch portions of the fall classic (World Series games were played during the day back then).

Yesterday, 6 members of that 1969 Mets team signed autographs at Stew Leonard’s. They were celebrating both the 50th anniversary of their world championship, and the store’s 50th.

Phil Gambaccini recently moved back to Westport, after many years abroad. He was at Stew’s yesterday, of course. In the photo below, Ed Kranepool (center) and Art Shamsky autograph a ball for him.

Other Met legends in Norwalk were Ron Swoboda, Cleon Jones, Jim McAndrew and Duffy Dyer.

The line for autographs snaked through the store and into the parking lot, for several hours. Near the end players moved through the line, shaking hands with fans (many as gray as the Mets), and handing out pre-autographed sheets of paper.

Most of the Mets — notably Shamsky, 77 — looked close to playing form, or at least fitter than many fans.

Kranepool has suffered with diabetes for many years, and is searching publicly for a transplant match. When fans asked about his health he quietly said, “Thank you. I just hope I get my kidney.”

To honor the 50th anniversary of the Mets’ championship season, Stew Leonard’s announced that its Wishing Well charity will benefit the Alzheimer’s Association. That’s a tribute to Mets Hall of Famer and ’69 World Series ace Tom Seaver, recently diagnosed with Lyme-related dementia.

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.

“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.