They were on the heels of the school's first state championship. Eastport-South Manor celebrated the crowning of its first state wrestling champion when Maverick Passaro earned the 126-pound title in Albany last March. The Sharks were to build on the success and continue to climb the ladder into the upper echelon of Suffolk wrestling.
ESM also was coming off a 26-4 dual-meet record, had placed four wrestlers in the county tournament and was building toward another successful season. That fell apart quickly. The Sharks' team aspect would be put on hold as a lineup decimated by graduation and injuries had too many holes to compete in the Suffolk League V dual-meet season and finished with a dismal dual-meet record.
"I realized early on in the season that the combination of heavy graduation, injuries and things that were out of our control were making our lineup inconsistent," ESM coach Nick Garone said. "The focus had to be about the individuals and not the team at the midpoint of the season. We knew we had some individuals that could do very well in the sectional tournament and realize their dreams."
ESM moved three wrestlers into Tuesday's semifinal round at the Physical Fitness Center at Hofstra. They were a 3-for-3 as ninth-grader John Busiello pounded Mike Ludwig of Northport, 11-1, to advance at 99 pounds.
"Our guys were really pumped after Busiello's win," Garone said.
He will meet Huntington's John Arceri, who upended top-seeded and previously undefeated Jesse Delvecchia of East Islip, 2-1, in three overtimes.
Junior Travis Passaro pinned Chris Reilly of Half Hollow Hills West in 5:57 at 120 pounds. And in one of the more stunning wins in Tuesday's first four rounds, junior Jimmy Leach upset state place-winner Corey Jamison of Huntington, 3-1, with a last-second takedown.
"I hit him with a head chancery and put him to his back just before time ran out," an excited Leach said. "This was the biggest win of my life. He'd beaten me three times in a row."
All three will have the opportunity to join Maverick Passaro on the school's Wall of Fame in the team wrestling room.
"This is such a gratifying moment for all of us at Eastport," Garone said. "Leach's win came after some struggles with injury and self doubt. To beat a guy like Jamison, a returning county champion, is just unbelievable."
For the first time in school history, Hills West placed four wrestlers in the semifinal round. Led by state runner-up Tyler Grimaldi at 160 pounds and Joe Piccolo at 170, the Colts moved those two wrestlers into the finals and sat in 11th place in the team standings after the semifinal round.
"We've wrestled extremely well in the tournament," Hills West coach Mike Patrovich said. "Now we need to finish it off with a few crowns in the finals."
Sachem East leads East Islip in the team scoring, 109-104. The Flaming Arrows have one finalist and six wrestlers in the consolation semifinals. East Islip, which lost two excruciating semifinal bouts in three overtimes, moved two wrestlers into the finals, including undefeated Chris Chambers at 195 and Erik Adon at 152. The Redmen also have four in the consolation round.