WRESTLING: Paint it, Black! Wesleyan coach Drew Black of Cheshire tabbed for national Hall of Fame

CHESHIRE — Over his 23 seasons as head wrestling coach at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Drew Black has enjoyed attending the annual Connecticut Chapter of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame dinner to listen to inductees share their stories of determination and perseverance.

“They always do a great job at the event,” Black said. “I always thought that it would be good to one day get honored. When you’ve done something for a long time, it is always nice to be recognized for your hard work.”

That moment has come for Black, who has been chosen for Connecticut’s 2022 class of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame. He will be inducted with a group of men that includes Platt High School head coach Bryan McCarty.

Black received the good news in letter from Leroy Smith, the brother of Oklahoma State University wrestling coach John Smith.

“They are a big family in wrestling,” stated Black. “It is an honor that they thought of me for this honor.”

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the induction event has been pushed back to April 30, 2022 in hopes of having a live ceremony at Foxwoods Resort Casino.

“During these COVID times, it has been good to reflect on the people who have helped me in wrestling. The sport has helped me further my education, meet my wife, and start a family and a career,” said Black, who lives in Cheshire with his wife Jennifer and son Sean. “For the next year, I’m going to look back on my journey.”

After coaching at Phoenix College in Arizona from 1995-98, Black came to Wesleyan and built the program into a title contender. Along with setting the school wins record (211), he has twice been named New England Wrestling Association Coach of the Year (2010 and 2012).

“I’ve coached so many great wrestlers. They are even better people,” said Black, who has already been inducted into the New England Wrestling Association Hall of Fame.

Before becoming a coach, Black developed a passion for wrestling. When his family moved from New York to New Jersey, he picked up the sport as a freshman at Mahwah High School.

“In the locker room, I saw the wrestling coach and told him that I was going out for the basketball team. He said that he didn’t know how good I was, but suggested I try wrestling instead,” said Black, who was only 4 feet, 8 inches tall at the time. “I came to my first practice in high-top sneakers. When I switched to wrestling shoes, I fell in love with the sport.”

He enjoyed wrestling with his older brother Sean.

“He was blazing the trail for me,” stated Black.

Wrestling at 71 pounds, Black won all of his five matches as a freshman.

“I won 5-0 in my first match,” Black recalled. “I had to eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to make weight and wrestle a guy weighing 108 pounds.”

Black also participated in football and track as an underclassman, but felt that he had the most potential as a wrestler and decided to focus on that sport for his last two years.

“I liked the physicality and being able to get in the middle of things,” explained Black. “I loved learning new techniques.”

After placing third in his district as a sophomore, he broke through in his junior year to take first place. He went on to finish third in the state.

To cap his career in 1987, Black went 33-0 and captured the state title by pinning his top rival, Frank DeMary, at 108 pounds.

“I was seeded number one in the state and he was number two,” said Black. “We were both undefeated coming into that match, so to come out on top was a great feeling.”

Black went on to become a three-year starter and co-captain at Syracuse. He helped the team win two conference crowns.

“Overall, it was a great experience wrestling and getting my education,” stated Black.

After graduation, he thought that he would pursue athletic training, but instead chose to go into teaching. Black went to the University of Florida for his certification and then moved to Ohio to earn his master’s degree at Kent State University.

In becoming a student teacher at Stowe-Monroe Falls High School in Ohio, he coached the junior varsity wrestling team.

“I was paid $2,000 and, for a starving college student, that was a lot of money back then,” said Black.

After meeting his wife, the couple looked for a warmer climate and drove out to Arizona, where they spotted Phoenix College. After learning that the school was looking for a wrestling coach, Black rushed out to send in a resume.

Phoenix initially contacted him to say someone else had been hired. Soon after, the school called back to say that the head coaching position had opened up.

In his third and final year at Phoenix, Black coached his team to an 11-3 record.

“We had a diverse team with Native Americans, African-Americans and Hispanics,” reflected Black. “The guys had talent, but faced a lot of challenges from the areas they grew up in.”

After getting married, Black and his wife looked to move back east. In 1998, Black accepted the position of wrestling head coach and associate professor of physical education at Wesleyan and moved to Middletown.

“I hadn’t heard of the school until applying for the job,” recalled Black.

Since Wesleyan wrestling had been led by four coaches from 1990-98, he wanted to bring stability to the program. It didn’t happen overnight. In Black’s first season, the Cardinals started 2-0, then lost their last 12 matches.

“From the start, I wanted to build up the team and keep getting better,” Black explained.

To keep track of the program’s progress and garner recognition, Black started the Wesleyan Wrestling Hall of Fame. To start off, he chose to honor the 2001-02 team that went 17-2 and set the school’s single-season wins record.

“We had a special group that year,” recalled Black.

In one of his favorite moments, the Cardinals earned their second NEWA title in 2012. Hosting the tournament, Wesleyan won three of the last four bouts to clinch the crown. Wesleyan also shined in the 2013 National Duals in Springfield, Illinois.

“We came in unseeded, but ended up placing sixth against Division II and III teams,” Black said.

Individually, Black has had wrestlers excel on the national level. In the 2017-18 season, Isaiah Bellamy led Division III in pins and Devon Carrillo finished third overall.

State Open champion Zack Murillo of Southington wrestled for Black. 2013 graduate Howard Tobochnik earned the program record for career wins (119).

“Howard had a 3.9 grade point average. He taught math to inmates at the prison in Cheshire and served as the head (resident assistant) at Wesleyan,” said Black. “He was so coachable, too. Every drill, he would work to perfect his technique.”

Off the mat, Black takes pride in his wrestlers’ academic success. Wesleyan has earned Scholar All-American status for 20 years in a row.

“When I recruit, I look at the SAT and ACT scores and GPA before checking out a wrestler’s moves,” said Black. “Academics is always the No. 1 priority.”

Black enjoyed sharing his passion for wrestling with his son Sean. After starting to work with family friend Mark Fong at age 5, Sean was coached by his dad for three to five years in Middletown.

“I know the sport is hard, so I didn’t want to say that ‘You need to be a wrestler,’” reflected Black. “I wanted to show him wrestling and have him make up his own mind.”

When Sean was in eighth grade, the Black family moved to Cheshire. At Cheshire High School, Sean led as a wrestling and lacrosse captain, along with playing soccer.

After graduating in 2017, Sean has gone on to play a key role in Merrimack College men’s lacrosse winning its first two NCAA Division II titles.

One of those championships came in 2018 at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts. The same day, at the same stadium, Wesleyan won the Division III title.

“It was so amazing. At the game, I had my Wesleyan jacket on top and my Merrimack coat underneath it,” recalled Black. “Wesleyan coach John Raba is also from Cheshire and coached Sean in lacrosse growing up.”

Black aims to bring a national wrestling title to Wesleyan. With the pandemic still ongoing, he doesn’t expect the Cardinals to wrestle this season, but the team continues to stay in shape. For a span of 10 weeks last year, the squad set up an outdoor weight room.

“The guys want to wrestle, but they understand the health situation right now,” said Black. “We want them to think, ‘I’m going to make the best of the situation and be a leader.’”

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