Worthwhile trip for Journeyman’s Popolizio

Updated: October 13, 2016

(Frank Popolizio of Journeyman Wrestling welcomed Oklahoma State coaches  Zach Esposito, left, and John Smith, right, to his summer camps.)

By Greg Wallace

Sometimes, the best ideas come from problems you never knew about until experiencing them first-hand.

The Popolizio family knows this well. In 1996, Pat Popolizio was a very talented wrestling prospect at Niskayuna (N.Y.) High with a state championship and a national runner-up finish to his credit. Major colleges were calling, but the process was, in brother Frank’s words, “arduous.”

“There was nobody guiding us in there for what to look out for, what to expect and do,” he said.

Pat’s recruiting process turned out well. He signed with Oklahoma State and was a three-time NCAA qualifier and two-time Big 12 runner-up. He is now a successful head coach who is beginning his sixth season running North Carolina State’s program.

Frank, however, was inspired. In 1999, he created Journeymen Wrestling, a club designed to promote college wrestling in New York’s Capital Region, an area devoid of Division I, II or III wrestling programs.

Iowa coach Terry Brands (center) worked with siblings Alexis and Jesse Porter, who started competing in the Journeyman Mini-Men Club when they were eight years old.

Iowa coach Terry Brands (center) worked with siblings Alexis and Jesse Porter, who started competing in the Journeyman Mini-Men Club when they were eight years old.

“It really was started with a process of understanding that (recruiting) is complex,” he said. “You want to have someone helping you, have answers you can lean on.”

It has become much more than that. With what Popolizio calls the “strategic four Cs” — camps, clinics, clubs and competitions — Journeymen has become a club with 250 members and a rising force in tournament organization that serves hundreds of wrestlers on a yearly basis.

“We felt if we did those four Cs and had a constant influence, it would eventually change the game,” Popolizo said. “It has actually changed the impact of our wrestling community.”

Journeymen has raised visibility for some very talented wrestlers, but it’s really about getting opportunity for those who might not otherwise be seen.

“The reality is that less than one percent in our whole wrestling population is going to be able to do the D-I thing and not everyone is going to fit in D-I or the upper echelon of D-I. It’s very narrow and you have to be cognizant of that,” he said. “It’s D-II, D-III, JUCO, NAIA. This forces you to make relationships that are broad, reasonable and realistic.”

High-profile camps with Pat Popolizio, John Smith (who coached Pat at Oklahoma State), Penn State’s Cael Sanderson and Iowa’s Terry Brands also burnish Journeymen’s reputation.

Five Journeymen-run tournaments spread throughout the calendar year. In early October, Journeymen held a two-day, 500-wrestler tournament including high school, middle school and female competitors. It included a wide range of wrestlers from nationally-ranked to state champions to state qualifiers and more lightly-regarded wrestlers could win their way into the main event, where 94 percent of the 260 wrestlers are state place-winners or better.

The brackets group wrestlers with others at their skill level, from “best of the best” on down.

“It’s a real tough event,” Popolizio said. “We have round-robin brackets, no fat, all meat and potatoes. Every round is a big-time round. The best of the best wrestle the best of the best and so on, so (others) aren’t overwhelmed.”

On Nov. 12-13, that concept will come to the collegiate level. The Journeymen/ASICS Collegiate Classic will take place at Hudson Valley Community College in Troy, N.Y., with a collegiate open tournament, a clinic featuring Ohio State coach Tom Ryan and Cadet World champion Aaron Pico, scrap and scramble youth duals and Best of the East high school exhibition matches.

“It’s a three-ring circus,” Popolizio said. “It is an event, best of the best.”

Previously, the collegiate tournament featured 21 predetermined duals. Now, it, too, will have a “best of the best” format that will allow coaches greater control, something they desire in an early-season setting.

Wrestlers from 16 programs (including Arizona State, Minnesota, North Carolina, N.C. State, Ohio State, Oklahoma and Wisconsin) will compete in a tightly controlled event matching wrestlers of similar reputations in eight-man brackets; a formula for success.

“It’s an RPI-driven event,” Popolizio said. “Coaches have control having (only a few) redshirts, greyshirts and non-D-I guys. It produces a unique environment. A traditional open tournament this time of year is a little more difficult to control.

“(At open tournaments) you may wrestle six matches, three with no RPI points and get out of there at 11:30. (Here) we know it’s going to start at 9 and be done at 5. That’s another thing that’s critically important.”