More than three decades of wrestling dominance by Manny Costa and St. John’s Prep didn’t start on the mat.
One of the greatest dynasties in state history began after a chance meeting between two old friends at the Northshore Mall in Peabody.
Costa, a recent college graduate, had never coached wrestling before running into Steve Ring, who he knew from his time at the Massasoit Judo Club. Ring’s son, Benjamin, was wrestling at Prep, and the Eagles needed a coach.
Costa took the job in 1990 but did not expect his tenure to last more than two years — the length of time Benjamin Ring would be wrestling for the Eagles.
His bond with the other wrestlers made him stay, and, 32 years later, Costa is the first coach in state history to surpass 800 career victories. Authoritative wins over Maimonides, Saugus/Peabody, and Essex Tech/Masconomet helped Costa move past the 800-win milestone Monday, and he added his 802nd win two days later with a 57-18 victory over Catholic Conference rival Xaverian.
Before his coaching career, Costa won three medals at the Pan American Games as a member of the United States Judo team and was an Olympic team alternate. Even with Costa’s lack of coaching experience, Ring knew he would be the perfect man for the job.
“I knew the kids would look up to him,” Ring said. “Yeah, he’s never coached before, but man, he has been all over the world! He’s an international judo champion. He knows the sport. He knows what it takes to win.”
That experience yielded near-instant success for Prep — Benjamin Ring became Costa’s first state champion and his first wrestler to reach 100 wins in the coach’s second season. Despite the early success, Costa said his greatest lessons were in losses.
“I look back at those first year or two, and I always smile and think, if they didn’t buy into it, I would have been gone a long time ago,” Costa said. “I appreciate all of those guys.”
Costa has mentored 33 Division 1 state champions and 15 all-state champions. The Eagles have also won the dual meet state tournament four times and picked up a D1 title during the 2021 spring season.
A couple of decades into his tenure, Costa coached his sons, Jared and Hunter, and both won state titles in 2014 at 145 pounds and 2016 at 138, respectively.
Costa credits his first few teams with establishing the culture that lives on today. This year, the team has faced formidable out-of-state competition during a championship run at the George Bossi Lowell Holiday Tournament and a trip to Connecticut for a meet against three of the state’s top programs. Costa has always believed in scheduling the toughest opponents New England has to offer, even early in his career when wins were not as frequent.
“[Costa’s early teams] bought into that formula of ‘Yeah, we have to go against that schedule if we ever want to be able to produce at the state level,’” Costa said. “And then that’s what set the mark and the standard for later on in the program history.”
Jim O’Leary, the school’s former athletic director and football coach who is now an assistant to the principal, lauded Costa’s ability in building and fostering relationships.
“He prepares them really, really well,” O’Leary said. “We have a great, strong program and he continues to be successful. I mean, his assistant coaches all wrestled for him. There’s a sense of pride in this program.”
With 802 wins over 32 seasons, Costa is averaging 25 wins per year. The Eagles are in the middle of a 24-0 season, but Costa said this is the toughest year he has ever coached because of the uncertainty caused by the pandemic.
Senior captain Adam Schaeublin said Costa has done a great job of guiding the team through the constantly changing high school sports landscape. After a positive COVID test earlier this season, Costa was determined not to let his 32-year streak of perfect attendance come to an end. So he facetimed into the practice room while quarantining.
“The wrestlers see ‘Oh, he cares so much that he’s going to be in his house by himself, for two hours straight, just looking at us practice through a screen, then I think I should care too, and I should put some effort into this,’” Schaeublin said. “Little things like that show that he truly cares about us, and he truly cares about our success.”
The Eagles have not won a New England team title, but with one of the strongest teams in Costa’s tenure, they’d like to pin down another trophy.
“All week, I’ve been thinking [about] the ‘90s, the 2000s, the 2010s, and how many great guys have been here and how many guys that hung in in a dual meet to make sure we won,” Costa said. “It’s been incredible. What a ride.”
A 100-pound weight class will be added to the Girls’ State Tournament, to be held Feb. 25. The measure passed with a unanimous 15-0 vote during the MIAA’s Wrestling Committee meeting Friday. Any girl wishing to wrestle at 100 will need to be recertified at that weight by Feb. 2.
The committee also discussed potentially dropping from 14 weight classes to 12 or 13 following guidance from the National Federation of State High School Associations. But they will wait until the New England Council meets again, to keep Massachusetts in line with other New England states.
▪ Bristol-Plymouth coach Bob Gay picked up his 400th win Saturday. Gay started coaching at Whitman-Hanson in 1985 and won 271 matches with the Panthers before taking over the B-P program in 2013. Gay has been inducted into the Massachusetts Coaches Hall of Fame, the New England Coaches Hall of Fame and the Massachusetts Chapter of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame . . . Two coaches reached the 100-win threshold: Central Catholic’s Jamie Durkin and Brockton’s Deshawn Fentress, who was the 2019-20 MIAA Coach of the Year. Fentress joined the century club Wednesday with a win over Durfee, while Durkin, who started coaching in 2017, reached the mark Saturday during a quad at Mansfield.
▪ Whitman-Hanson won the Weymouth Tournament on Saturday, snapping an 11-year title drought in a team tournament. The Panthers scored 165 points, edging second-place New Bedford and third-place Norton, the defending Division 3 state champion. Freshman Charlie Lussier continued his exceptional season, winning the 106-pound crown with a 4-0 record, including three pins. He’s 20-0 this season. His twin brother, Cooper Lussier, won the 152-pound bracket, going 4-0. He’s now 20-2 on the season.
▪ Following up on its win at the Whitman-Hanson Panther Invitational, the King Philip wrestling team won the Midlands Invitational at Quabbin Regional. The Warriors defeated Northbridge (60-24), BC High (60-24), Athol (60-24) and Windham NH (52-27) . . . Thanks to six finalists, nine top-three finishes and one champion, Whittier Tech won the Dan Gionet Memorial Tournament in Pelham, N.H. on Saturday . . . Central Catholic (11-1) moved closer to another Merrimack Valley Conference title when it beat Lawrence (58-22), Billerica (45-24) and Haverhill (52-27) during a quad Saturday at Mansfield. Central, which has lost only to St. John’s Prep, has three league matches remaining (North Andover, Methuen, Lowell) . . . Billerica managed one of the biggest comebacks of the season Saturday, trailing Haverhill 40-6 before rallying for a 42-40 win. Dominic Gird (160), Gavin Mancini (170), Alexander Ciocco (182), Dominic Terrazano (195), Tyler Bornstein (220) and Ryan Maillet (285) all earned consecutive pins.
▪ Boston Public Schools have been approved to resume wrestling and can compete starting Saturday, according to Amy Daniels, senior programs and operations coordinator for BPS.
Matches to watch
Saturday, Cape Cod Invitational, 9 a.m. — Hosted by Sandwich, the tournament brings together the Cape’s three wrestling programs — Sandwich, Nauset, Barnstable — with nine other schools for a 12-team tournament.
Saturday, Milford Quad, 10 a.m. — The Scarlet Hawks, coming off a win over previously undefeated Melrose, will be hosting Hopkinton, Algonquin, Franklin County Tech and Monty Tech, which is coming off a big win over Natick.
Wednesday, Milford at Franklin, 6 p.m. — The Hockomock League’s Kelley-Rex Division regular-season title will hang in the balance when the last two league champs (Milford 2021, Franklin 2020) battle.
Wednesday, Duxbury at Hingham, 7 p.m. — The last two undefeated teams in the Patriot League’s Keenan Division will face off in a highly anticipated battle.
Ethan McDowell can be reached at email@example.com.