It’s almost impossible to catch a clear photo of Branford middle school wrestling coach Tom Ermini. During a recent practice at Francis Walsh Intermediate School, he darted from pair to pair offering tips as wrestlers from grades 6 to 8 took turns trying to pin one another in two-minute bouts. During every practice, Ermini still finds time to scan the room and choose one student to become player of the night.
At 28, Ermini, who spends the day teaching physical education and health at Milford’s West Shore Middle School, still has the energy level of a high schooler as he coaches three-dozen young students – mostly boys. “What’s your secret,” we ask? Ermini laughs, “I go to bed early.”
“I kind of feed off of their energy. I need to come in and be excited or they won’t be. I expect them to give me 100 percent everyday,” commented Ermini.
Ermini, an East Haven resident, came to WIS six years ago and launched the wrestling program with hopes get students involved before getting to high school. Ermini was a student teacher at Branford High School when he began working as an assistant wrestling coach for their team. With the help of BHS head wrestling coach Chris Bonagiuso, Ermini launched the middle school program with the hope to attract enough wrestlers to compete. This year, he said, was the first time they had to turn away hopeful members.
The students, who look up to Ermini, told Patch, “You can’t use the “U” word” in the practice gymnasium. What they mean is the team has made it three seasons without losing against other middle schools making them undeaf… This past weekend they competed in the 2013 McGee Tournament in Berlin– which pits wrestlers from all over New England together. The team placed third out of 27 with eight wrestlers making it to the finals – four won (Willie Gambardella (75 lb. weight class), Nikko Liguori (125 lb. weight class), Jack Seward (180 lb. weight class), Kyle Zalewski (185 lb. weight class)). Eighth-grader Nikko Liguori also became the 12th wrestler of all time to ever win the McGee Tournament three years in a row.
Liguori who is one of four team captains said, “Our coach is really a great coach. He teaches us a lot.” Liguori continued to say that their success over the years has a lot to do with the repetitions Ermini makes them practice.
Steve Perrotti has had two sons go through the wrestling program including current eighth-grader John Perrotti who is also a captain. He said coach Ermini’s is valued.
“It’s a fantastic program,” he stated. “It’s not just about being strong but knowing the moves and being technical.”
As Ermini commanded the group, Perrotti said, “He’s strict but they respect him.” He added that his sons had to learn to become very disciplined and develop time management as practice takes up much of their after-school time.
“I was talked into joining,” said Noah Pantani, an eighth grader who is also a captain. Since joining in sixth grade, he said the team has gotten better and better. What he likes best, he said, is that Ermini teaches them, through wrestling, to respect everyone. Facing an opponent he said, “takes lot of courage for the other kid too.”
Ermini said the WIS squad has come a long way since he started. From the first practice where he was teaching students the basic understanding of wrestling as well as the difference between real wrestling verses what they see on TV to where they are today is a testament to Ermini’s skill and dedication.
His biggest challenge, he said, is getting the athletes to recognize that wrestling is a team sport in addition to an individual sport. “It matters what every single person does,” he commented. “It’s the kind of sport; if you’re not going to try your hardest, someone else in the room can’t get better and improve.”
And though there’s not a lot of losing going on in his gymnasium, Ermini said some of the best advice he gives athletes is to be ok with losing when it happens. “The biggest life-lesson is to set high goals and expectations and to get better by losing. You learn more from losing a match than winning.”
If you want to see the wrestlers in action:
Branford vs Berlin
Francis Walsh Intermediate School, Main Gym
Friday, Jan. 11, 4 p.m.