By Larry Moko
The St. Thomas More Knights celebrated two birthdays, an anniversary and some individual medal wins at the 2020 Hamilton-Wentworth Catholic high school wrestling championships.
Knights coach Stefanie West carried a huge cake with candles ablaze into Bishop Ryan’s Joe Di Trapani Gymnasium when the last match ended as the More wrestlers sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to a couple of their teammates.
“Both Ali Hammoud and Faton Soumah are having their 18th birthday today,” West said. “Ali is our captain.”
The annual city meet was an anniversary of sorts, too, because it marked the return to competition after many years of absence by a St. Thomas More team.
This year, 105 wrestlers from four schools – Bishop Ryan, More, St. Jean de Brebeuf and Cathedral – took part in the girls’ and boys’ weight-class events.
“Today, I was really happy with everybody,” West said. “We had some heart-breaking losses but we also had some epic wins. I think we learned a lot.
“Overall, the season has been incredible. It’s a really close-knit team. We had 37 kids wrestle. It’s like a family. That’s why we’re celebrating their birthdays.”
The Bishop Ryan Celtics finished first in both the boys’ and girls’ team standings, while More came second. In the girls’ category the margin between first and second was only 10 points, however.
First-place podium honours for More went to Avan Mamende (41kg), Isabella Dmitrovich (72 kg), Charisse Pilgrim (77 kg) and Juanita Leguizamon (61 kg).
“A highlight was St. Thomas More coming in so strong with such amazing wrestlers,” coach Sheldon Francis of the defending OFSAA champion Celtics said. “They made us sweat to earn our title.”
Because of More’s large and competitive delegation, Francis said Bishop Ryan couldn’t afford to sit out its top athletes to rest them for next week’s Golden Horseshoe Athletic Conference provincial qualifier.
“We had to make sure we put out the best product,” he said.
Bishop Ryan’s best product includes defending OFSAA champion Serena Di Benedetto who recently won an Ontario Juvenile (U19) club championship in Toronto as well as a provincial Junior (U21) title at Western University. At the junior event in London, the Grade 11 student was competing in a division three years her senior. Despite that disadvantage she won all her matches by technical superiority without surrendering a single point. In the semifinal she downed two-time OFSAA champion Jessica Hong who competes for Lakehead University and in the final she defeated her national teammate and 2019 Cadet Pan-American silver medalist, Samantha Adams.
“I was pretty nervous,” Di Benedetto said of the provincial events, “but I knew I just had to wrestle. It was the outcome I wanted.”
Returning to her home mats at Bishop Ryan, Di Benedetto (51 kg) captured gold as did her brothers Dante (54 kg) and Adriano (77 kg). It was the first time that all three -- their father is BR assistant wrestling coach John Di Benedetto -- placed first at the same tournament.
“Dante has come a long way,” Francis said. “We’re very happy for him. He has taken a beating but he’s worked really hard to make sure he’s one of our tougher individuals. He will grind out every match, which is great.”
Francis also praised the gold-medal performance of BR’s Joshua Ramon (67.5 kg). Said Francis: “He was phenomenal. He’s in Grade 9. He stepped up and beat some Grade 12 wrestlers that were really good and athletic.”
Emily Ling, a recently-hired development coach for the McMaster-based Hamilton Wrestling Club, was on hand to distribute the medals and witness More’s return to the city wrestling scene.
“I’m so impressed with how far these kids have come in just a few months that they’ve been wrestling,” Ling said. “They have a lot of enthusiasm for the sport and their team.”
Ling, 23, won four OFSAA championships during her high school wrestling career plus five consecutive Ontario university titles for the Brock Badgers. The Sarnia product also captured four Canadian university crowns plus a Commonwealth Games bronze medal.
Her expertise is expected to benefit the development of many aspiring young wrestlers in Hamilton.
The GHAC championships are Thursday, Feb. 20 at Bishop Ryan. Qualifiers then advance to the OFSAA championships March 2-4 in Sault Ste. Marie.