The first time Lester Ware laid eyes on Rafal Rokosz, he had a clear vision of what the future could hold for the then-sophomore—because he’d seen it before.
When Ware, the Southampton varsity wrestling coach, saw Rokosz first show up for open mat workouts on Halloween three years ago, he was immediately reminded of the last Southampton wrestler to have an impressive career in maroon and white.
“My immediate thought was, I turned to [assistant coach Niko Gettling] and said, ‘Here comes Julius Junior,’” Ware recalled in an interview on Monday. “[Rokosz] was still tall and gangly, but I saw the kid that’s out there today right away.”
Ware was referring to Mariner alum Julius Anglickas, a 2009 graduate who finished in the top five in the state Division II wrestling tournament twice in the 215-pound weight class. Ware was sure right away that Rokosz had the potential to be the next great Southampton wrestler, and his hunch was on the mark.
Rokosz will be heading upstate for the Division II tournament at the Times Union Center in Albany on Friday for the second time in his career, and has a great shot to win a state title. He’s seeded second behind last year’s runner-up, Ryan Wolcott of Waverly High School.
Rokosz earned his spot at states by winning his second consecutive Suffolk County Division II championship in the 220-pound weight class, one of several accolades on a very impressive wrestling resume that includes strong showings against some of the best competition in the country. Rokosz competed at the Eastern States Tournament this year, a meet considered even more competitive than the Division I state tournament, and which wrestlers must be invited to in order to compete. He also competed in the Super 32’s, another prestigious tournament, and his most impressive showing to date was a runner-up finish in Greco-Roman wrestling at the Junior Nationals in Fargo, North Dakota over the summer that earned him All-American honors.
A few days after the high school state tournament wraps up, Rokosz will travel to Austria with Southampton teammate Peter Strassfield—a 285-pound junior who narrowly missed out on a trip to states—to compete as members of the U.S. Junior National Team. In the fall, Rokosz will trade his maroon and white singlet for a blue-and-white version as he joins the Division I Duke University wrestling team.
Wrestling wasn’t always Rokosz’s number one sport, but he said seeing the success Anglickas had before him convinced him to give it a shot.
“I did a lot of different sports,” Rokosz said last week. “I was kind of all over the place. I played tennis, soccer, did winter track. But I always liked the idea of wrestling around, so I decided to try out my sophomore year. And the one person that really got me started to join was Julius. He had already graduated, but he would stop by sometimes during winter break and I would be able to see him wrestle.”
Rokosz said he was impressed by Anglickas’s strength and athleticism, and wanted to follow in his footsteps. Having Ware as a mentor didn’t hurt either, as Ware was not only a standout during his days as a Mariner wrestler in the late 1970s but also went on to find success at both the national and international level, also as a heavyweight.
Rokosz said he was totally hooked by the time practice got underway in his sophomore season.
“Coach Ware is very persistent, and the way practice was going, I really liked it,” Rokosz said. “I knew I was going to stick with it. It was kind of a no-brainer.”
While no one in Rokosz’s family has a wrestling background, it isn’t surprising that he has excelled in athletics, as his father was a high-level volleyball player in their native Poland. And Rokosz has not only found success on the mats; he’s been a standout in the classroom as well, taking Advanced Placement classes and earning a high GPA.
Although Rokosz was born in the states, he started kindergarten in Riverhead speaking only Polish, and admitted that adjusting to school and learning English were difficult at first. Rokosz and his family moved to Southampton when he was in first grade, and he said he was able to adjust rather quickly after that. Rokosz said his Polish heritage is still a big part of his life, however, and the fact that he has dual citizenship means—if his dreams of wrestling internationally come true—he could compete for either the United States or Poland.
“I definitely feel like a regular American kid, but I still have that connection to Poland,” he said, adding that he and his family visit Poland every summer to see his grandparents and other family members.
While the possibility of competing internationally, for either country, is still a long way off, the fact that Rokosz is comfortable talking about it is a sign of how far he has come in a short time. He admitted that initially, he didn’t believe he could wrestle at the collegiate level. But that all changed after the trip to Fargo last summer.
“I didn’t think I was good enough at first,” he said. “But after I went to nationals and got the All-American title, I started thinking I could do it.”
Rokosz ultimately chose Duke after also considering Brown, Columbia and New York University. He said he was hooked on the North Carolina school after visiting the campus when he competed in a tournament nearby.
“I fell in love and knew it was the place,” he said.
Rokosz said he will likely major in economics in college, and he’ll also focus on his wrestling dreams as well, hoping to become a collegiate All-American.
As for this weekend, his goals are simple but clear.
“I’m definitely chasing after the state title,” Rokosz said. “My main goal is to stay relaxed and hit the moves I’ve been hitting throughout the season and not get too nervous about it.”
Regardless of what happens over the weekend, Ware is proud of what Rokosz has accomplished in living up to the high expectations he had for him when he first walked into the wrestling room.
“He has an insatiable curiosity about wrestling,” Ware said. “Every once in awhile, you get a kid that catches fire and falls in love with the sport, and he’s that kid.”