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Legendary Wantagh Wrestling Coach Keeps Winning

Paul Gillespie reflects on his outstanding coaching career that continues in Wantagh.

When Paul Gillespie took over the varsity wrestling program at  (LBHS) in early 1978, a single student signed up for the program. Call it a modest start to a distinguished 18-year coaching career at LBHS: 17 county titles, 17 conference championships, two New York State titles, and national rankings of 7th in 1982 and 13th in 1987.

“I really thought I was going to have a hard time starting the program,” Gillespie recalled. 

That September, though, he gathered a team of 17 wrestlers and won the conference. Over his Long Beach career, Gillespie amassed a 110-1 record in the league. 

Now Gillespie, 61, has returned to his winning ways in his first year at the helm at following a hiatus from head coaching. Wantagh captured the Nassau County dual meet title on Jan. 28. Two weeks later, Gillespie's team had at the individual county wrestling championships at Hofstra.

“It was a good feeling because I worked very hard prior to the season,” Gillespie said. “We got a lot done with the preparation with the kids. I put a lot of time in, and I worked with the youth program, which has paid off.”

After Gillespie first returned to coaching at Oceanside High School in 2001 — winning two conferences and, during his second year, knocking off second-ranked Long Beach — he left after three years to focus on coaching his son, P.J.’s, a standout wrestler at both LBHS and Hofstra. The LBHS product earned All-American honors in 2011 and as a senior this past season won a Colonial Athletic Association title at 165 pounds. He closed his college career competing at the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships in St. Louis earlier this month.

While at Hofstra, Gillespie met wrestling coaches from Wantagh who were looking for help, and he signed up as an assistant at the high school. Four years later with another county tile under his belt, Gillespie looks to keep winning. “We have a great youth program over at Wantagh now and in a few years we’re going to be very, very good,” he said.

Similarly, the coach attributes his success in Long Beach to the youth programs he helped establish. The first standout wrestler he coached was Al Palacio, a three-time state champion who attended the University of North Carolina on a full scholarship, where he earned two-time All American honors. Palacio’s nephew, .

Today, about ten of Gillespie’s former Long Beach wrestlers coach against him at other schools, from Hewlett to Island Trees. He cites one of them, assistant varsity coach in Long Beach John Anfossi, who wrestled for him from 1987 to 1989, as one of his all-time outstandouts.

“He was one of my guys who really took wrestling seriously and he learned a lot about life,” said Gillespie, who was a two-time All American at West Chester State University. “I’m very proud of him.”

Anfossi attributed Gillespie’s success to his commitment to his wrestlers and the sport. “He was a constant in our lives, someone who was an advocate for us, when not all of us had parents who could be advocates for us,” said Anfossi, a dean at Long Beach schools.

Anfossi remembered Gillespie would drive his wrestlers to tournaments from New Jersey to Virginia, in the days before school-sponsored bus transportation, and everything was paid out of his pocket. Gillespie had Anfossi and his teammates rise early in the morning to lift weights before classes, and then had them wrestling until 6:30 p.m., and in between he would check up on them in their classrooms.

“He truly looked out for us,” Anfossi said, “and his commitment allowed us to give that commitment back to him.”

* Andrew Coen contributed to this story.

Chris Wendt March 29, 2012 at 10:46 AM
Good article, nice to have Paul Gillespie coaching the Wantagh Warriors grapplers! Beyond the schools' programs, are there organized youth wrestling programs in Wantagh or Seaford? Anything like http://www.ny-usaw.org/events/2012-section-8nassau-county-youth-wrestling-championships/ ? This organization serves kids 8-14 years old in 5 age divisions: Bantam 2004-2005 40/45/50/55/60/65/70/75/75plus Intermediate 2002-2003 50/55/60/65/70/75/80/87/95/103/112/120/(plus) Novice 2000-2001 60/65/70/75/80/85/90/95/100/105/112/120/120/140/(plus) Schoolboy 1998-1999 70/77/84/91/98/105/112/120/128/136/144/152/160/190/210/205/285 I know Wantagh is always looking for additional revenue, and we have a lot of gym space and a golden reputation for wrestling. Seaford does pretty good with wrestling as well. Just asking...
Steve March 29, 2012 at 01:08 PM
Wantagh has a very good youth program and the kids roll around year round. Wantagh HS has actually won 3 out of the last 4 county championships...and were named the number 1 dual meet team in NYS this year. They were ranked 27th in the country according to a HS wrestling rankings service. They have at least (7) boys wrestling at D1 schools...Steven Bonnano became an All American at Hofstra this year and they have (2) young men wrestling at Harvard...it all starts at the youth level...
David Takseraas March 29, 2012 at 02:51 PM
Seaford has a very good youth wrestling program as well. The youth team practices three nights a week from November through February. The kids wrestle in several tournaments year round. In addition, Seaford offers a week long youth wrestling camp over the summer. Check out www.seafordwrestling.com for more information.
Michael M March 29, 2012 at 05:57 PM
The reason Wantagh wrestling program have done soo good in the past few years is due to a) The students and b)the past coach Jimmy Murphy who seems to be forgotten about.
Mitch March 29, 2012 at 07:02 PM
Ray Handley Sr and Jerry Liguori deserve all the credit for Wantagh's success. Frank Muzio, the previous coach to Murphy also should get some credit. Murphy was a good coach but inherited some great wrestlers already groomed through Wantagh. Gillespie is a legend in the sport but he too inherited some great wrestlers.
Chris Wendt March 29, 2012 at 08:08 PM
Thanks for the responses about youth wrestling in Wantagh & Seaford, Concerning giving 'credit' for Wantagh High's success, I think the legacy goes way back, at least to the sixties. Coach Steve Babiak? Others in between?
Michael M March 30, 2012 at 05:26 AM
I believe from 2006-2011 coach Murphys record was 111-09 that might be the best record for a coach in New York state for that time period .I would like if The Patch did a poll asking the students who they credit for their success
Malone March 30, 2012 at 05:52 PM
Murphy made that team, best thing Muzio did was bring in Murphy...... Gillespie's a hell of a coach no one can argue that, but that team was build by Murphy. Unfortunately just like every Wantagh sport the parents got involved and Murphy just got up and left he didn't need parents tell him how to coach. Its a shame too, he moved his family here and then people go behind his back and push him out. Could have been a Wantgah legend
Mitch March 30, 2012 at 06:09 PM
True about too much parent involvement in Wantagh. Same thing happened to this years football coach. A small group of whiner football parents weren't happy with the way the coach coached the team so they rallied to get the guy fired. He ended up quitting probably because working in a town like this wasn't worth the aggravation.
Russell March 30, 2012 at 11:39 PM
Gillespie is a hall of fame coach. He did inherit a program that was second to one in NYS. Jim Murphy is unquestionably the person that took that program to an elite level. Like everything good, it never last forever. He was pushed out and the parents got to involved. He set that program up so that it runs itself for years.....he built a machine/program!

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