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Joey Collins

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You had to see it to believe it. Joey Collins led his team out to the mat as the volume was raised on the sound system — the music blasted as WWE wrestler John Cena sang, “Your time is up, my time is now.  You can’t see me, my time is now.”

Collins, a senior with Down syndrome, has been on the Port Jefferson wrestling team for four years. He took center stage Dec. 22 during the Port Jefferson Bob Armstrong Tournament.

Facing a Riverhead opponent, Collins started the period on top before his opponent broke free. Face to face, his Blue Waves challenger grabbed his right leg, and instead of taking Collins down, fell on his back, where Collins jumped on the opportunity to hoist up his opponent’s leg for the pin and a win in the consolation match. He said the song he loves got him ready to compete.

Joey Collins gears up to compete. Photo from Joe Collins

“It got me more pumped,” he said. “It was the best moment of my entire career.”

As the mat was slapped three times to decide his fate, the cluster of wrestlers alongside him leaped up in celebration. Collins, engulfed by the excitement and cheers from the crowd, stood up and waved his hands, imploring the fans in attendance to keep up the noise.

“I love being a part of a team,” Collins said. “It’s exciting. I work hard and do something for me that betters myself.”

His father, Joe Collins, was moved by what he’d just witnessed, but said his initial thoughts were a little different based on his son’s reaction.

“Part of me was saying, ‘Jeeze Joey, you need to tone it down a little bit,’” he said, laughing. “He’s not the most gracious celebrator, but the reaction was so positive from everybody and I was really, really pleased that he was enjoying it so much. I felt proud of him and I loved the way he jumped into his coach’s arms and slapped hands with all his teammates. I also thought about how proud Joey’s mother would have been.”

Collins’ mother Mary Beth died last November following a lengthy battle with cancer. The father recalled the first time his son, who became an avid wrestling figurine collector in middle school after idolizing his cousin’s collection, took part in a wrestling match at the end of his freshman year. He had been practicing with the team, but finally competed in his first consolation match, which are matches that don’t factor in to a team’s score for a meet.

“My wife clutched my forearm, seeing his face against the mat looking up at her, and everyone was screaming for him to stay on his belly to keep from getting pinned,” Joe Collins said. “It was very exciting. We were nervous and proud to see him out there. We were thankful and grateful he’s getting the opportunity to play like that with other kids.”

Joey Collins practices for his next match. Photo from Joe Collins

Port Jefferson head coach Mike Maletta said he remembers when Joey Collins’ mother approached him following the Mount Sinai meet.

“She walked over to me very sternly, and I was afraid of how she was going to take it,” he said. “But she put her hand out and said, ‘Thank you,’ and walked away.”

From that moment Collins was hooked. He was used to cheering his teammates on from the side of the mat with Maletta, but finally got the opportunity to compete, although still frequenting the sideline to cheer on friend and teammate Matteo DeVincenzo, a prominent wrestler in the program who won county and state titles.

“It always warms my heart when I see Joey sitting next to the coach and yelling encouragement for kids like Matteo and his older brother Tristan,” Joe Collins said.  “It was a nice turnaround for Joey to be encouraging someone else. That was really neat to see.”

DeVincenzo also enjoyed it.

“I thought of Joey just like I thought of anyone else on the team — a wrestler,” DeVincenzo said. “He was a member of the team and deserved to be treated the same as everyone else. It felt great to have Joey’s support. It was evident that he looked up to me and that was gratifying and impactful.  Knowing that I was someone that he could use as a model and mentor was very self-fulfilling. It was inspiring working with Joey and watching him grow over the years. He truly grew into a young man on and off the mat. Joey was a symbol of hope and heart for the team. Whenever we were struggling or down in the dumps, one glance at Joey could enhance anyone’s day. If Joey could do it, anyone could.”

Joey Collins said he enjoys the camaraderie between him and his teammates, too, something he said he learned from Maletta.

“He taught me how to become a better wrestler,” Collins said. “He taught me how to train and how to work hard. I love to cheer my team on. I love getting involved with the sport. I love being a wrestler.”

Although Maletta said at first having Collins on the team presented a set of unique challenges, he and the wrestlers have warmed up to their fellow Royal.

Joey Collins shows off his WWE wrestling belt. Photo from Joe Collins

“The first year it was a handful,” he said. “I tried to think of how I was going to work with guys that were focused on winning state titles, but by his second year he got better at being in practice. He was able to stay on task longer, and I treated him like every other kid. We try to raise expectations and he wrestled some good matches.  Joey goes out there and he wrestles hard no matter what.”

He competed in multiple matches in his sophomore year, and was joined by his twin brother Jack Collins, a football standout who is also currently on the basketball team.

“Wrestling with Joe was a blast,” Jack Collins said. “At practice you could really feel the radiance he gives off when wrestling and learning. Wrestling is a huge part of his life. He loves it and the sport has been good to him. It taught him a lot as well about morals. Athletics have been a great way for me and Joe to connect.”

After missing some of his junior season when his mother passed away, Maletta said he was excited to see Collins return to the team his senior year, noting that he’s one of six “watchmen,” seniors who have been on the team since they were freshman. Last year, none of the seniors had been on the team all four years, and prior to that, there were just two.

“Wrestling was a good distraction for him,” Maletta said. “I told him he’s a senior now, and I’m putting him in matches for real. It would be a disservice for him to not ever really go out there and know what it’s like to win or lose and feel the emotions of the sport.”

Maletta said it’s been a pleasure to watch Collins grow.

“He’s matured in the room, he’s part of the team,” he said. “It’s sad he won’t be in the room next year.”

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Sterling Nenninger stares intensely at his opponent before a match. Photo from Mike Maletta

“Watch out for us this year, we’re gonna be good.”

That’s what senior wrestler Matteo DeVincenzo had to say about his Port Jefferson high school team, and the New York State champion may be right.

With a 13-4 League VII record over the last three seasons and a slew of All-County wrestlers returning, the Royals have been working hard in the off-season to bring everything they can to the mat this year.

“Last year we had a bunch of holes in our lineup, [but] with all of the guys we have returning, plus the newcomers, we can spread our lineup out if we have to,” Port Jefferson head coach Mike Maletta said. “To fill out 15 weight classes in a small school is almost impossible, and we’re in a good position right now.”

Despite losing several All-County wrestlers to graduation in June, the team still has seven seasoned seniors and plenty of new additions.

Vinny Miceli has his arm raised after winning his first Suffolk County title. File photo by Deb Ferry
Vinny Miceli has his arm raised after winning his first Suffolk County title. File photo by Deb Ferry

Three guys are fighting for the top spot at the 99-, 145- and 152-pound weight classes. One of the 145-pounders is senior Alex Frohmen, who is coming off of a 28-day intensive wrestling camp in Minnesota.

“It’s not just the wrestling aspect when you go to that camp — it’s the amount of discipline you learn [from] being fully immersed in wrestling for 28 days,” Maletta said. “It’s a huge commitment and the expectations are not only for him to place, but to be on top of the podium in February.”

Frohmen also sees his teammates improving, both new and old.

“Some people are really growing and could definitely break through that threshold,” he said. “We’ve been doing a lot of sprinting, which definitely helps with our conditioning. Port Jefferson prides itself in its ability to wear down people and not be the ones panting at the end of the first period.”

At 106 pounds will be returning varsity starter Robbie Williams, who will build off of his experience from last year, when he wrestled at 99 pounds. Also at 106 pounds will be Joey Collins, whose freshman brother Jack, the quarterback of the football team, will compete at 145 or 152 pounds.

Joey Collins has Down syndrome, but Maletta said the athlete doesn’t let his condition bring him down.

“He brings a special excitement to any match that he wrestles in,” the coach said.

At 113 pounds will be returning county champion Vinny Miceli, who has almost 50 wins as a sophomore. His workout partner, Joe Evangelista, is a two-time All-Country wrestler who will be competing at 120 pounds and also has close to 50 wins.

At 126 or 132 pounds will be seniors DeVincenzo, Sterling Nenninger and Dallas Brett.

DeVincenzo is a three-time All-State wrestler and All-American, and Nenninger, also an All-County wrestler, is looking to improve on his fourth-place finish in the county last season.

“He’s our big gun,” Maletta said of DeVincenzo. “To have him anchoring the team is really exciting.”

Maletta said Brett, who was also named an All-County wrestler, is his wildcard.

“He has a funky style — he can surprise anyone,” Maletta said. “He’s never out of a match with the way he wrestles. He’s got a very unorthodox way of wrestling and sometimes he can surprise a guy with a roll or a throw and he lands on top and he can pin somebody.”

Senior Pedro Nobrega is Maletta’s “160-pound Brazilian import,” in whom he’s seen a vast amount of growth.

Chris LePore, who the head coach said is intense when he gets his motor going, will wrestle at 170. Maletta said he can see that sophomore flipping his record from last season.

Matteo DeVincenzo battles his way to his third Suffolk County title. Photo from Mike Maletta
Matteo DeVincenzo battles his way to his third Suffolk County title. Photo from Mike Maletta

Freshman Harry Cona, who Maletta said is willing to learn and attentive in practice, with great body movement for a big guy, will wrestle at 182. His fellow classmate is 152-pounder Sam Caltagirone.

All-County returner Ryan Walsh will compete at 195 and Nick Kafeiti, a junior who is new to the team, will complete the lineup at 220 pounds.

“Last year we were on the cusp of doing great things, so now we’ve been working hard over the off-season and we think we’re at that point where we can perform,” Walsh said. “You can feel the excitement in the wrestling room. It’s very positive.”

The Royals kick off their season with a tournament at Huntington on Saturday and have their first league meet on Wednesday at home against Southampton at 4:30 p.m. On Dec. 16 at 5 p.m., Port Jefferson will host Babylon on its “White Out” night. The team encourages fans to wear white, and the first 150 in attendence will receive “We Are P.J. Nation” T-shirts.

Nenninger said the expectations are high this season, and the team is sticking to its “PJ Nation” motto of not letting anyone cross its borders, while also making the Royals’ presence known despite being a smaller school.

“We face big schools and it’s not like we just give them the win — we’re always going to put up a fight,” Nenninger said. “We have such a small group of guys, but that only inspires us to work harder. We’re a group of strong wrestlers who feel we can take on the world.”