For all intents and purposes, Eastport South Manor senior wrestlers Jimmy Leach and Travis Passaro have climbed a mountain together. It’s only fitting that they finish that climb together.
Leach and Passaro both got a few feet closer to the pinnacle by becoming county champions in their respective weight classes at the Suffolk County Division I Championships at Hofstra University on Sunday night. To reach the summit of the mountain, Leach and Passaro will look to win state titles as they qualified for the New York State Division I Championships at the Times Union Center in Albany February 28-March 2.
It’s second consecutive county title for Passaro, who is the first wrestler in program history to win two county titles. And when Leach won his county title, it marked the first time in program history that two Sharks became county champions in the same season.
Leach won, 4-3, over Amityville’s Eduardo Ramirez, while Passaro won, 3-1, over Mike D’Angelo of Sachem North, in what was a rematch of last season’s county final.
ESM also had two other wrestlers place to take All-County honors—99-pound seventh-grader Adam Busiello placed third while sophomore Nicky Garone placed fifth at 132 pounds. ESM placed seventh as a team with 92.5 points, marking the third straight season the Sharks have finished in the top 10. Sachem East won the county championships with 141.5 points, just 2.5 points ahead of Elwood/John Glenn.
Leach, who joined the varsity wrestling team as an eighth-grader, said it’s been great seeing the team grow to one of the top 10 teams in Suffolk County with Passaro, who joined the team as a seventh-grader.
“I’ve known Travis since I was young,” Leach said. “He’s taught me stuff. We both drill together all the time. We kind of learned from each other, made each other better.
“He’s a good workout partner,” Passaro said. “Even though my brother used to be on the team, and I used to work out with him, I used to work out with Jimmy too. It’s been fun.”
Leach scored two takedowns in the first period of his county final match, but Ramirez was able to escape each time, giving Leach a 4-2 lead heading into the second. After neither wrestler scored in the second, Ramirez escaped Leach’s grasp with about 1:25 remaining in the match to make it a one-point match. Leach held on to the 4-3 victory.
Leach had lost to Ramirez, 1-0, in an off-season tournament last year, so it was a little bit of a vengeful victory for him.
“I don’t think I wrestled that great,” he said. “I came out strong, but by the end, I wrestled flat. I guess maybe it was nerves or something. A win is a win.”
Passaro scored two takedown points on D’Angelo in the final seconds of the first period of their match. D’Angelo escaped Passaro’s grasp to start the second period to make it 2-1 heading into the third and final period. In a little bit of a surprise decision, D’Angelo wanted to go neutral with 1:15 remaining in the match, giving Passaro a point to go up 3-1, and he wound up holding on to that lead.
“I came out a little flat this time,” Passaro said. “I was a little tired out there and I busted up my knee earlier today.
“Hopefully I can wrestle him at states and do a lot better,” he added.
ESM head coach Nick Garone said Leach and Passaro should be more proud of the way they wrestled. Either way, they became county champions, something some wrestlers strive for their entire high school career and never get to achieve. “In matches like county finals, you want to open up, score points, give 100 percent, but there’s also a little thing in the back of your head saying you don’t want to put yourself in a bad situation,” Coach Garone explained. “Jimmy and Travis, they’ve wrestled in big tournaments around the country and they know they can’t open up against guys who are very capable of turning things around on them, so they shouldn’t feel ashamed and they should enjoy the moment. I’m so proud of both of them.”
Busiello wound up having a tough-luck match in the quarterfinals against Deer Park’s Tommy Cox, who wound up placing second in the county. Busiello lost, 2-1, but Coach Garone thought he should have been given back points at a certain point of the match.
“Myself and coach [Mike Patrovich] felt he deserved the back points,” he explained. “I’ve been around the sport for over 30 years, I’ve seen a lot of bad calls and a lot of good calls. It was a bad call.”
Busiello won his first wrestleback match by pin over Connetquot’s Troy Novotny, then won a 6-1 decision over Hauppauge’s Jake Silverstein to reach the consolation finals against Phil Spadafora of Half Hollow Hills East. Busiello controlled that match from start to finish, and wound up winning 4-0.
Coach Garone said that it’s quite possible Busiello will make the trip upstate with Leach and Passaro as a wild card, since he placed third and wrestled well throughout the season. While all county champions are granted automatic bids into the state tournament, second and third place wrestlers in Suffolk County are sometimes granted wild card bids. The wild card system is point based, though, and Coach Garone wasn’t entirely sure if Busiello would have enough.
Coach Garone said that Busiello fighting back to take third place may be a blessing in disguise for his young wrestler.
“He exemplified what a real champion is all about,” he said. “Coming back and taking third place is extremely tough to do. I’ve always said I’ll take an army of third-place wrestlers because it’s the hardest thing to do in a tournament like that.”
Nicky Garone, the coach’s nephew, lost a close quarterfinal match, 10-6, to eventual county champion Chris Mauriello of Hauppauge. Garone was one victory away from the match for third and fourth place, but was defeated, 4-1, in the consolation semifinals by Sean O’Hagan of Sachem North, who wound up placing third.
Garone dropped down to the match for fifth and sixth place. He faced Tommy DiBenedetto of Elwood/John Glenn and won 7-2 to take fifth place.
“I couldn’t be more proud for Nicky, and not because I’m his uncle, but because I think he finally put it all together,” Coach Garone said. “He went up almost five weights this season and was able to place at a very, very tough weight. I think getting on the podium now is part of the process for Nicky, where, for the next two years, he has a sense of belonging.”
Coach Garone was a little disheartened that Dylan Kane (152 pounds) and Joe Zarcone (285) were unable to place. The two seniors came into the tournament highly touted—Zarcone was undefeated in League V and was league champion, while Kane was ranked in the top six of the county for most of the season.
But now Coach Garone, along with Leach and Passaro, and possibly Busiello, will turn their sights on the state tournament, which is in two weeks. Since Sachem East won the county tournament, it has the distinction of hosting the practices for those wrestlers who will be heading upstate. Both Leach and Passaro won’t be satisfied with anything less than state titles.
“I want to win it and I want to dominate,” Passaro said.