When Sal and Melissa Augeri found a few boxes of school supplies in their attic, they knew just who to call: Alex Kappel.
An assistant coach for the Staples High School wrestling team on which the Augeris’ son Nick is a star sophomore, Kappel is also an elementary school teacher in Bridgeport. Many families there have limited access to food and other resources.
The Augeris called several team members. Soon they had more supplies and food for “Coach Kap.”
But the wrestlers wanted to do more. On May 23, they’ll be “Running Across Westport.” One athlete starts; he’ll run to the next wrestler’s house and “tag” him (from 6 feet away, of course). The second wrestler will continue on. The high-powered Staples team has dozens of athletes, so it should be quite a run.
In return, the team asks for cash donations. They’ll use the funds to buy even more supplies and food. Any amount is welcome; just Venmo @Staples-Matmen.
Questions? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Team spirit is a hallmark of the Staples wrestling program. They support each other very enthusiastically. (Photo/Jose Villaluz)
Ariana Napier’s food drive bears fruit. On Friday she delivered 396 pounds of items — much of it donated by Westporters to the Bridgeport Rescue Mission.
She’ll continue to collect food, and deliver it every Friday. Her address is 14 Jennings Court (off Bayberry Lane). Items most needed this week: cereal; mac and cheese (box), jelly (no glass).
Another food drive — Homes With Hope‘s — was a great success yesterday. Volunteers — including Staples students — helped out. But the need continues, and another collection is set for tomorrow (Monday, May 11, 2 to 4 p.m.). Non-perishable goods can be brought to the Gillespie Center, behind Restoration Hardware. Stay in your car; pop your trunk; someone will take your donation.
Meanwhile, Kathie Motes Bennewitz spotted these great messages on a bench at Grace Salmon Park:
And finally … many Westporters love The Sweet Remains. The longtime folk/rock band was co-founded by Greg Naughton. He grew up in Weston, and now lives here with his wife, Kelli O’Hara.
A few days ago they released this “love song in the age of ‘shelter in place.'” It truly is lovely — and sweet.
Services for Barbara Stephens are set for this Thursday (December 19), 10 a.m. at Christ & Holy Trinity Episcopal Church. Chip Stephens writes:
Barbara Stephens left us this morning in body, but not in spirit.
Her family all made it in time to say goodbye. She died peacefully in her sleep, in her bed, in her home.
It was 59 years ago this month that she moved to Lone Pine Lane with her late husband, Ron, and 3 young children: Chip, Kevin and Donna. (Dee Dee arrived later).
Barbara Stephens with her son Chip, and grandchildren Dean and Bryn.
Barbara’s first job as a Westport mom was chief cook and bottle washer, Compo Beach summer lover, and kid taxi driver (a popular, common and very underpaid occupation in the 1960s).
She moved on to bigger things as a teller and manager at the old Westport Bank & Trust, then as a legal assistant at the law firm of Laux and Grant.
She loved local sports, particularly watching her kids play baseball, softball and Pop Warner football. Barbara was a very passionate mom at Staples football and wrestling matches. Her most prized award — one she often boasted about — was presented at a wrestling banquet by Coach Saul Pollack: The Loudest Fan Award.
Barbara was an active volunteer with Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, the Westport Republican Party, and at Christ & Holy Trinity Episcopalian Church.
She loved trips to Maine, sitting by the lake in Readfield. Her favorite picture was taken this past July on her 84th birthday. She sat on the deck of the Maine house overlooking Torsey Pond on a glorious summer day, watching the Yankees streaming on TV, listening to the resident loons.
Barbara Stephens, watching the Yankees by the lake in Maine.
Soon after her birthday she took ill. After a month in rehab she moved back to Lone Pine as a hospice patient. She gained strength and thrived in her last months with 2 more visits to Maine, seeing her great-grandchildren baptized, and enjoying visits and texts from her 9 grandchildren.
Barbara visited Compo last Monday, and took a grand ride around town before falling ill and passing away late Friday night. Her family was by her side.
Barbara Stephens was a true Westporter. She will be remembered by many whose lives she touched.
The family has asked that donations in her name be sent to support her favorite blog, which was her great source of joy and favorite online local news: “06880” (click here for details).
Barbara Stephens with her first grandchild, Charlie, and first great-granchild, Charlie Jr.
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.
Mark Ryzewicz is a successful orthopedic surgeon in Cody, Wyoming. His Staples High School wrestling days are long behind him.
But the 1991 state open finalist remembers his days as a Wrecker fondly. So — when the call went out recently for fundraising help — he responded quickly, gladly and generously.
He was not alone. A dozen other former grapplers sent their own very generous checks.
Just as importantly, they sent emails. With passion, emotion and great gratitude, they described what the sport did for them in their formative years.
The individuality of wrestling — a physical loss is very personal, but you come back tougher and better for the experience, develop resilience and ultimately — was important, Ryzewicz wrote.
So was the team aspect. Every member helps every other wrestler improve. Even an inexperienced athlete who avoids a pin can save enough points so the entire squad ekes out a victory.
Mark Ryzewicz (bottom row, center) was unable to compete in the 1990 New England tournament due to an injury. He was there with (bottom, from left) Steve Uydess and assistant coach Skip Garoffolo, and (top) head coach Nick Garoffolo, Dan Haid, Zach Cahill and assistant coach Terry Brannigan.
Camaraderie develops through the intimate process of winning, losing, training, being physically beaten, gaining strength and confidence.
Ryzewicz notes that “in terms of socioeconomic, class and body type,” no sport is as diverse as wrestling. Success comes from “taking what you have, then figuring out how to make the most of it” — with, of course, the help of teammates and coaches.
Ryzewicz used the lessons of resilience and teamwork learned on the Staples mats well. First, after Stanford University — where he continued wrestling — he worked for several years as a cowboy on a 100,000-plus-acre Wyoming ranch.
Then he went to medical school. Residency involved 100-hour work weeks or more. He had personal struggles.
But the principles were the same: Don’t quit. Work hard. Find teammates to help him succeed.
In Cody, Ryzewicz’s operating room runs using a “wrestling teamwork model.” When his 6-year-old began wrestling recently — and earned a 5th-place ribbon — the former Staples wrestler drove him home, and reflected on the sport.
With the sun setting over the prairie, and sagebrush passing by, Ryzewicz thought about the impact his coaches and teammates had on his life.
The 1990 Staples High School wrestling team.
So when Terry Brannigan — another Staples grappling alum, who still lives here and whose own sons also wrestle — put out the call for help, the response was natural.
Brannigan is a founder of the Staples Mat Men. The parent group wants to “relaunch” the program. They hope to bring it back to the days of packed gyms, state tournament contenders, and dozens of athletes sweating, training, learning the same lessons that served Ryzewicz, Brannigan (and Jamie Breen, Pete Cahill, Zach Cahill, Adam Lau, Dave Santella, Ryan Sorley, Ken Shubin Stein, Ryan Thomas, Greg Torok and so many others — all coached by Nick Garoffolo) so well.
Brannigan — hearkening back to Garoffolo’s own mentors, Saul Pollack and John Chacho — is glad that the lifelong friendships and valuable lessons he learned on the mat will be experienced by his own 3 sons. (TJ is already an excellent junior on the team.)
He’s worked steadily for 2 years to help a program that had fallen on hard times: low numbers, several coaches, without a wrestling room to call its own.
New coach Fred Mills — a veteran of the famed Danbury program — is excited to help bring the program to the next level.
TJ Brannigan (left) and George Harrington at the state tournament in March. Harrington — only a junior — advanced all the way to the national event.
Earlier this month, Brannigan contacted some of the “kids” he and Garoffolo coached 25 years ago. He asked for help, funding things like extra assistant coaches, clinics and more. “What happened next is remarkable,” he says.
Emails, texts and phone calls cascaded in. Checks, too. (One alum said, “I’m traveling but can wire it if you need it right now.”)
Zach Cahill wrote, “the wrestling community made it feel like what we were doing as young athletes really mattered. It was an enormous advantage to have that kind of support. It is a gift I carry with me to this day.”
Not one of those former wrestlers — except Brannigan — lives in Westport.
That didn’t matter.
When one wrestler asked, they came through — no questions asked.
If the current Staples wrestling team is anything like its storied predecessors, the future looks bright indeed.
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