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Youth Wrestlers Grappling With Practice Space Issue

Since being displaced from their practice site — Sandy Hook Elementary School — in the wake of last December’s tragedy, Newtown Youth Wrestling Association (NYWA) members bounced around to wherever space has been available. That included locations out of town — in Bethel, Danbury, and in a Brookfield warehouse.

This year, as the start of the fall season approaches, the only site the Newtown grapplers have lined up is at the Newtown Middle School gymnasium. That’s all well and good, but it doesn’t offer enough space, NYWA President Chris Manfredi says. Officials in the NYWA are seeking other options and welcome offerings from anybody with space — about 2,000 square feet of it to be exact — for practices a few nights a week.

The program, which continues to grow, has 60-some participants, and they need to be split up according to age. There is an elementary team and a middle school squad. Grapplers in the program range from kindergartners through eight-graders and combining them into a single practice isn’t feasible. “You can’t do it,” Manfredi said.

At Sandy Hook School, the program benefited from space in both the gym and cafeteria. With only the middle school gym at the team’s disposal, there is a problem.

So what about the team making a sacrifice and dividing up the practice time between the age groups?

The problem there is that the program loses about an hour of its three-hour block of practice time to set up and clean up mats. It involves rolling them out, taping them, cleaning them — and undoing everything before getting out of the gym.

“Wrestling is one of those sports where there is absolutely no substitution for practice,” Manfredi said. “There’s almost no amount that’s enough.”

Manfredi claims that while all sports require practice, most can be played by means of natural ability. Wrestling requires more technique and learning on the part of athletes, he says.

Competing towns, such as Danbury and New Milford — which always field extremely strong programs — have two to three times the numbers of participants, yet the elementary school team managed to tie New Milford for the Western Connecticut Elementary School League championship and the middle schoolers were narrowly edged out by New Milford for second place.

After last December’s tragedy, the older participants practiced at a Brookfield warehouse owned by Bill Hoadly, for whom a parent of a wrestler works. The younger grapplers stayed in town and rolled out the mats at Middle Gate Elementary School. Other programs, such as the one from Wilton, offered space last year, but it was just too far away.

NYWA officials met with Newtown Parks & Recreation representatives and, thus far, are keeping their fingers crossed that something more will pan out. They looked into private sites, such as Newtown Youth Academy, but NYWA needs to keep its costs down, Manfredi said.

“We don’t know what we’re going to do,” he added.

Chris Bray, who previously coached in and served as vice president of the NYWA program, is set to take over as the varsity coach at Newtown High School this winter, and recognizes that lack of sufficient practice space for his future grapplers now could be a problem down the road.

“My whole high school program is predicated by what happens down at the youth program,” he notes. “We’d love nothing more than to have a home we can call our own here in Newtown.”

The new middle school coach for NYWA is Brian Hayes, and Curtis Urbina remains in place as the head elementary coach. Practices are set to start in late October, and prospective grapplers may go to newtownyouthwrestling.com. Those with input on practice space opportunities are asked to e-mail newtownwrestling@gmail.com.

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