Sometimes, when a team falls just short of its ultimate goal, fear can start to sink in that that its window of opportunity might be closing. But with coaches Paul Gillespie and Ray Hanley at the helm, and with Anthony and Joe Clem and Jesse Vanorden returning next season, Wantagh High School’s wrestling team has no such concern.
The squad is coming off one of the best seasons in the program’s history. The Clem twins, who are juniors, emerged as stars this season, and went far enough to be named Newsday’s Athletes of the Week on Feb. 17. Other key members of the team included Vanorden, a junior, and senior Thomas Bonasera.
“I was pretty happy with my season,” Anthony Clem said. “Wasn’t my favorite ending, but pretty good throughout the whole season.”
Both Anthony and Joe lost in the finals of the state championships, Anthony in the 118-pound division and Joe at 126 pounds.
But Wantagh racked up 253 points at the Nassau Division I championships Feb. 11 and 12, far ahead of Long Beach High School (208.5) and MacArthur High, in Levittown (183.5). The Clem brothers, Vanorden and Bonasera were all standouts.
Bonasera defeated Lynbrook’s Dylan Vanegas in the 138-pound division, Vanorden beat Bethpage’s William McMullen in overtime in the 145-pound final, and Anthony and Joe Clem captured titles in their weight classes as well.
“Team counties is really exciting,” Joe said. “In the finals, we went up against Long Beach, and I was the final match. It came down to the final match.”
Clem dominated his match, winning by technical fall, the wrestling equivalent of the mercy rule. “When you’re up by 15 or more points,” he explained, “they just stop the match.”
Clem ended up earning the Gary Ventimiglia Outstanding Wrestler and the Ted Petersen Champion of Champion awards for his performance.
Gillespie and Hanley have full faith in the athletes who will return next year. Gillespie, who was a two-time All-American at Pennsylvania’s Westchester State University, has coached at Wantagh for 12 years. He previously coached at Long Beach.
But Gillespie also knows that Long Beach — and other Nassau wrestling teams — will see Wantagh as the team to beat next season.
“Plainedge, MacArthur, Massapequa — these will all be back eventually,” Gillespie said. “Long Beach will be back as well. Long Beach has a great kids’ program, like we do.”
The Wantagh Wrestling Youth Program was founded in 1996, by Hanley, who’s now Gillespie’s assistant coach. Hanley is usually familiar with the wrestlers by the time they get to high school, and that, at least according to Paul Gillespie, earned Hanley the nickname “the mayor of Wantagh.”
“The Clem brothers were in my program,” Hanley said. “And I saw that they were on (the top) level. You can tell right at the start, when they walk in, how good they’re going to be.”
Gillespie and Hanley have seen many generations of Wantagh wrestlers, and agreed that this year’s team was among the best ever. But they believe the chances of bringing home a state team title will remain high next year.
“Our window remains wide open,” Gillespie said. “We have Jesse coming back, we have the Clems coming back, we have an array of other kids coming back. We’re going to be hard to beat yet again.”