Wrestling club’s got lessons on and off the mat

Members of the East Side Wrestling Club sweat it out during practice on Monday, March 24. The free club keeps kids in shape and is lauded by the parents of participating kids. (Patrick Larkin/Review)

The East Side Wrestling Club’s youth group has kids from a wide range of ages, from age 7 to 15. (submitted photo)

For the coaches at the East Side Wrestling Club, wrestling is about more than getting in shape and winning matches.

Coach Mason Fong says it’s a sport that “can really kind of build character and work ethic.”

He points to Dwayne Williams, the Johnson High School wrestling captain, who started high school struggling with academics, athletics and attitude.

Now, Williams is looking at his options for wrestling in college with sizable scholarships, and his grades are solid. He’s been offered a $9,000 a year scholarship from Augsburg College this fall, thanks to his wrestling and academic performance. He says he owes a lot of that to his wrestling coaches.

Fong and fellow coaches Matt Vinez and Andy Maseus, who coach both the club and the Johnson High School teams, are hoping to make stories like Williams’ a regular thing.

So a few years back, they started a youth-oriented wrestling club, to accompany the high school version of the club. The free group meets Mondays and Wednesdays, and is geared for kindergartners through eighth-graders.

Now in its fourth year, the group has become a modest but solid presence, with about 16 kids meeting weekly in the evenings at Johnson High School’s wrestling room.

During a practice on Monday, March 24, a dozen boys and girls ranging in age from 7 to 15 listened attentively as Fong went through drills with them. None of them goofed around, and they dutifully went through their drills, working up a sweat.

Beyond wrestling

It’s this kind of hard-working environment that keeps Trista Matascastille taking four of her five sons to the wrestling club.

Though she was at first opposed to her boys trying the sport, thinking it was perhaps a bit barbaric, she quickly changed her tune. Her enthusiasm for her boys’ involvement is mainly because the coaches are a good influence on her boys, she says.

“The lessons that they’re giving are about so much more than wrestling,” she says. The coaches are reinforcing family values she and her husband teach at home, she says.

The coaches routinely check up on the boys’ grades, making sure they do their homework, and for the younger ones, encouraging them to read. They also focus on hygiene, telling the boys to take baths after practice, something that young boys seem particularly averse to, Matacastille says with a laugh.

She recalls an instance where it was clear the coaches cared about her kids’ lives -- her oldest son went out for football last year, and quit in the middle of the season. The first day he wasn’t at football practice, Mason Fong noticed, even though he wasn’t coaching football.

So he followed up with boy, made sure he was doing all right, and encouraged him to pursue other sports to stay motivated, Matascastille says.

“To me, that’s really valuable.”

Luis Cirilo, 14, a freshman at Johnson High, joined the wrestling club in eighth grade.

He says he’s still coming due in large part to the coaches -- “they really helped me out a lot.” Both on and off the mat, he says they’ve taught him respect and work ethic. Cirilo and Williams both help out with practice for the younger boys.

Antony Tuttle lives in North St. Paul, but brings his kids out to the wrestling club.

Tuttle grew up on the East Side and says he likes to stay plugged in to the area.

Tuttle’s oldest boy has seen enormous improvement since he started coming, Tuttle says -- last year, the he only won six matches. This season, he lost 20 pounds and took sixth in state.

Tuttle himself likes to participate in the club, as opposed to just watching. He estimates he’s lost about 40 pounds thanks to working out with his sons and daughters.

Cedric Oliver, Dwayne Williams’ younger brother, says he was drawn into the club last year after being encouraged by Dwayne.

Oliver smirks as he explains Dwayne’s tactic was a combination of encouragement and forcing him to do it.

But he could see that the wrestling coaches had been a good influence on his older brother. “It kind of inspired me,” he says.

Contact Patrick Larkin at 651-748-7816 or at eastside@lillienews.com. Follow him on Twitter at @ESRPatrickLark.

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