Jose Valenzuela saw something missing from the city’s youth sports offerings. It seemed to him that Boston wasn’t ready to support wrestling on its own the way it had supported other sports.
It was this void that drove Valenzuela, 27, who wrestled from 7th to 12th grade at Boston Latin School and then for another four years at Williams College, to start the Boston Youth Wrestling program a year ago.
“I really saw a need for more wrestling,” Valenzuela said. “And as a coach myself, I started a team five years ago at TechBoston Academy in Dorchester.”
The Dorchester Bears Wrestling Team started with only a handful of student wrestlers and no equipment before expanding to over 30 participants for the winter and spring sessions.
“That was really our intention, to support the coaches through their seasons and give the kids more opportunities to practice in the city but also compete with other teams inside and outside the city,” Valenzuela said.
Since then, the program has expanded to the Washington Irving, the Dever-McCormack and the Lilla G. Frederick. The Irving and the McCormack had never had a wrestling program and many of the students have never wrestled before.
“They have experience wrestling with siblings and cousins, but they all come to us pretty inexperienced,” Valenzuela. “They don’t have any background to really understand what the sport is.” He joked that some kids come into the program wondering what their wrestling name will be, or that they consider the sport to consist of jumping off of ropes or hitting each other in the head with chairs.
The program is considering five new schools for its Spring 2013 program, including the Lee K-8 and the Curley K-8. But there is no rush to expand too quickly, Valenzuela said. The program has to try out the model first and work out any kinks before adding more schools.
“Three of our four schools are in Dorchester,” Valenzuela said. “I feel very strongly that Dorchester is the proving ground for this program.”
Valenzuela’s team, which consisted of about 35 students from the four schools, won the MYWA South Sectionals earlier this month, the first time a Boston youth wrestling team has won the competition. 10 of those students qualified for the State Championship Tournament on February 18.
Two Dorchester residents, Kelvin Santiago and Danny Paulino, both students at the Frederick will be competing March 9-10 at the Youth New England Championships. Santiago and Paulino are both first-time wrestlers. They are the first Boston residents to qualify for the New England championships in at least five years.
Valenzuela said the program started out with 110 students trying out before being whittled down to 75 for the season, which then gets cut in half for the competition team. This actually ends up working out, Valenzuela said, because some of the students just want to practice and don’t care about competing.
“I think a lot of our kids like the sport because they know that if they work hard, they can be successful in a short amount of time,” Valenzuela said. “Some of our kids go from being inexperienced in December to competing or at least placing in the spring.”
Valenzuela added, “I think we’re at a tipping point. A lot of people before me have attempted to start a wrestling program and have felt really frustrated with the city’s lack of support. We’re trying to show, with the right support, there are certainly a lot of kids who do want to try the sport.”
For more on this program, see bostonwrestling.org.