NORTH TONAWANDA — Just two seasons ago, North Tonawanda wrestling was stuck in the basement.
The 2017-18 season saw the Lumberjacks sitting at the bottom of the Niagara Frontier League standings with an 0-7 league duals record. From those who were in the program at the time, there seemed to be a culture where some didn't promote kids to push through the bumps that often come in the road.
Former head coach Dan Fire was stepping away and he knew something needed to change. He knew roping in his nephew, Tony, would be no problem. With Dan's lauded hall of fame career, Tony's father —David — being a two-time hall of famer with NT and crosstown-rival Tonawanda, as well as Tony's own exploits as a wrestler for Niagara County Community College, Dan knew he needed one more person to bring alongside his nephew.
That's when coincidence happened; Fire and current head coach Wally Maziarz were on the same plane ride, with Fire flying to Colorado for a national wrestling event and Maziarz doing the same with going to a Team USA trial in Oklahoma City. Fire called Maziarz and they instantly bonded with their ties to NT wrestling.
Fire couldn't resist from there. He had to plant the seed in the Lumberjacks' Division-I alumnus to take over the struggling program. But Maziarz, who wrestled collegiately for the University at Buffalo, was still working as a volunteer assistant with the Bulls at the time.
Fast forward to 2018 and things fell into place. Maziarz's schedule became overbearing with the college coaching grind, so he decided to come home. Coaching up his hometown program was not always the focus for the third-year head coach though, due to the program's culture and history.
Maziarz said often times people would acknowledge that the Jacks had a stud wrestler here or there — like Section VI champion Tyler Bartolomei for example — but the program itself was never one of the NFL powers. But that's all that Maziarz wanted to do; prove to those in area that NT would be a program not to be reckoned with.
In his short time there this has come true, guiding the program to 10 wins in 2018-19. This season resulted in the Lumberjacks posting a winning record, which included wins over programs like Lewiston-Porter and Lockport for the first time in several decades and a second-straight win over Tonawanda after years of stumbling against the Warriors.
Maziarz knows he is working with a tough bunch of blue-collard kids and he wants to treat his program like any D-I coach would with a year-round regiment, as NT wrestling keeps on this upward trajectory.
"Putting in the work, that's what wrestling is. You don't have to be the best athlete to win at this sport," Maziarz said. "You have to be a hard worker though. I've seen so many talented guys on my Division-I at UB, very, very talented guys, but without the work ethic. It was unreal. ... That's how I coach as a high school coach, I get these guys to the place kind of where I was at where we might not be the best athletes, but we're gonna push the pace, we're gonna work hard and we're gonna build a program around that."
Maziarz hopes sharing his wrestling experiences sets the template for how much perseverance is needed to thrive on the mat. Like Maziarz coming up as youth wrestler, working through a knee injury in his senior year of high school, or driving to the Binghamton state freestyle tournament, which he won after sleeping in his ragtag car the night before.
The former Bull wants to open the kids up to the type of life skills that wrestling develops. He's hard on his kids because he knows the resiliency you learn on the mat translates to life in general.
"What are you gonna do when you have a kid and he needs to be fed. Are you just gonna lay in bed because you don't wanna do it that day?," Maziarz said. "You've gotta get motivated, get up and get your hands dirty. And that's what we're trying to build here, we're trying to build wrestlers, we're trying to build great people."
What Maziarz described as NT's wrestling "family" is growing, specifically with assistant coach Fire building up the "little empire" of the North Tonawanda Wrestling Club that features kids from age 6-14. With a group of 60-70 that place top three in most of the youth tournaments in Section VI, Maziarz knows how this can impact the program five or six years from now once most of those kids get to high school.
One kid who has seen this turnaround pull through is Camerin Holmes, as the senior said that the team's work ethic has boosted with Fire and Maziarz at the helm. Bonding together and extending out into the community are just some of things that Holmes believes has allowed the team to have this success so early. To achieve the levels that local powerhouses have though, Holmes is trusting the process.
"After I graduate, I'm gonna come watch these kids and they're gonna be getting better every day, every year," Holmes said, as he prepares for this weekend's state qualifier as the Jacks lone representative. "We're not gonna be taking 10 years to get there, I think this team's got maybe three or four years to get where Niagara Wheatfield is, Niagara Falls, Lancaster in the (Class) AA where they are at. They're gonna come around quick, if we get more kids up here."
One of the toughest tasks that Maziarz has had in his tenure is to get kids to understand how hard you have to work to make it to the next level. But with his time as a D-I athlete, Maziarz just looks to give his kids as much tutelage as they need to get there.
"I tell these guys every day, just because we're practicing, just coming up to regular practices that's not enough," Maziarz said. "You wanna be elite, it's the guys that do extra workouts after practice and in the offseason. If you're not lifting weights, the guy across town or in the next state is. If you're not on the wrestling mats in the offseason, that guy who wants to be the greatest is. There's always somebody outworking you in this world, and you've gotta work your tail off if you think you wanna be the best.
"Nobody ever got (to be) the best by just praying and dreaming. You've gotta put in the work, and the sweat and the long, long hours. ... I think we're starting to finally turn that corner now."
Follow sports reporter Khari Demos on Twitter @riri_demos. Also, tune in to Khari at 10 a.m. on Saturdays on WGR 550’s ‘Inside High School Sports,’ as well as the ‘Greater WNY Sports Connection’ podcast, a collaboration with Jon Simon and WNY Athletics.