Star News Daily

A Decade To Remember Sets Fredonia Apart On The Mats

Fredonia head wrestling coach Alex Conti, left, and assistant Greg Betts.
Fredonia head wrestling coach Alex Conti, left, and assistant Greg Betts have watched over one of Western New York’s elite varsity programs at Fredonia. (Submitted photo).  

Recognition of a team's hard work and accomplishment can do wonders for a team's morale. If they needed an extra boost, Fredonia recently received another.The Western New York Coaches Association recently selected Fredonia as the Division II wrestling team of the decade. Niagara Wheatfield High School (Division I) and Fredonia High School were selected as the varsity wrestling 'Teams of the Decade' by a committee formed by long-time wrestling coach Dick Lange and Niagara County Community College coach Eric Knuutila.

Considering the caliber of teams there have been in the Section 6 area, the award is all the more an honor to coach Alex Conti’s program. . The top five Division II teams of the decade selected by the WNY Wrestling Coaches Association in order are Fredonia, Falconer, Southwestern, Newfane and East Aurora.

Three of Fredonia's wrestlers are currently on athletic scholarships in college. Christopher Conti is a sophomore and Kenny Betts is a freshman at the University at Buffalo and Carlene Sluberski is a freshman at Northern Michigan University.

In the past decade the Fredonia Hillbillies have had five state championship winners. A few of the wrestlers who made Fredonia’s success possible are the state titlists Wil Sidey (2003, 171 pounds); Chris Conti (2006, 96 pounds); Frank Zielinski (2004, 275 pounds) and Kenny Betts (2007, 135 and 2009, 152 pounds).

During the past decade, Fredonia has had several other wrestlers take podium finishes at the state championships. The second through fifth place finishers include: Carlene Sluberski, second place (2009, 96 pounds), Brad Eichelberger, second place (2008, 215 pounds) Rob Dahn, third place (2007, 215 pounds) and fourth place (2006, 215 pounds) and Brandon Strandburg, fifth place (2005, 125 pounds). Also strongly contributing to Fredonia’s program over the past 10 years were names like Justin Perry, Flolite Padua and Ryan Yerico.

Two-time state champion Kenny Betts.
Two-time state champion Kenny Betts is one of three Fredonia graduates currently wrestling in the college ranks on athletic scholarships. (Submitted photo)

“I have talked to a few of the past players and I felt a pride in their voice,” Conti said. “It is, however, a tremendous honor that is greatly appreciated by those who have coached and volunteered as coaches through the history of Fredonia Wrestling.

“They were extremely pleased that people took the time to form a committee and come up with a criteria to award something that brings this type of prestige to our sport,” continued Conti.

Conti was the fourth grade manager on the first team Fredonia had when coach Wayne Vollentine started the program. His brother Sam and cousin Joe were managers and his cousin Ross was a freshman on the team. All four of them have been on the coaching staff at FHS since the 80's and 90's. Bud, Ross and Wayne were all co-coaches for Chris Stevens when he became Chautauqua County's first ever wrestling state champion.

Conti taught and coached in California for nine years before moving back to Fredonia in 1995. He was hired that year as a teacher at FHS.

“Along with my life long friend Greg Betts, I took over the responsibilities as the head wrestling coach,” Conti said of stepping up to ensure the continuation of wrestling at Fredonia. “Coach Vollentine had, for the third or fourth time, stepped back into wrestling to save it from being eliminated from the sports program here at Fredonia and I took over for him.”

Fredonia won its fifth straight Class AA championship this season. The Hillbillies have not lost a CCAA Division 1 dual meet since 2005 in capturing their fifth straight Division crown. Conti says the success that Fredonia has enjoyed has been due to the unselfish nature of the many volunteer coaches and supportive adults who have surrounded the Fredonia wrestling team.

Chris Conti.
Chris Conti is one of four Fredonia wrestlers to win state championships during the past decade. (Submitted photo)

“Greg Betts is the best right hand man in anybody's program,” continued Conti. “It doesn't matter who they are or where they are from, he will give all of his time, energy and resources. All of the sports programs here at Fredonia have benefited by having Greg Betts as one of Fredonia High Schools coaches.

“Also, without the support of the Board of Education, the Superintendent, our Principal and Athletic Director, Fredonia Wrestling would never have been able to maintain the level of excellence it has. The Board and Superintendent have continued to support the program because it values what it does for a very large number of students.”

People ask Conti how Fredonia manages get 40-50 students out for wrestling when other schools have a hard time filling the 13 required slots and he tells them it is because Fredonia supports volunteer coaches and encourages large numbers by recently approving a well needed jayvee coach.

“I might never have had a state champion if it wasn't for the help of two very key individuals,” Conti said. “The late Wil Sidey won a state championship in 2003 and I attribute that accomplishment to Nick Sisley and my brother Sam (Bud) Conti. Both were volunteer coaches in the program and both played key roles in that success. After that, the wrestlers started believing they too could succeed, and once you start believing anything is possible.”

The five year success of four state championships and 19 state representatives was made possible in part by volunteer coaches like Jesse Beers, Danny Morales and Joe Santilli. Each would come in on an daily basis to make sure the level of FHS wrestling stayed competitive. Ross Conti has been another integral part of the success of the FHS wrestling team. For 12 years Ross acted as a volunteer coach and two years ago he was brought on as a paid coach in charge of the jayvee program.

Conti continued, “Ross' work with the younger athletes has been the most important key to the team success we have had after losing so many state caliber athletes the last two seasons. Wayne Vollentine is the George Steinbrenner of Fredonia wrestling. As our coach and teacher in the 1970's, he taught us what it was to be passionate about this sport.”

“He taught us how to win and how to face the next day after we come up short. He has saved the team from being dropped on a number of occasions and continues to mentor us as coaches in the system. He watches us from the stands and gives us a weekly report from evaluating how the athletes look as they compete. He has been there for us from the beginning and continues to act as the team owner.”

Because of the support Fredonia's wrestling program has received from the people and businesses in and around the community especially the adopt-a-wrestler program, they have had the opportunity to help student athletes with camp cost and they have gone to a number of tournaments that would have been impossible to attend had it not been for their generous support.

Brandon Strandburg.
Brandon Strandburg is one of several Fredonia grapplers to take podium finishes at the state championships under coach Alex Conti. (Submitted photo)

The support of the parents has also been extremely important to the program. Everyone has parents who are extremely active and supportive while their children are in the program. But, at Fredonia parents continue to help 20-plus years after their children have graduated.

The McKelvey family has helped at every tournament since their son was in the program in the mid-1980's. The Graham family has been a similar support system and have traveled every where to support the team. Dave LeBaron has been instrumental in keeping the kids program going since he graduated in 1987. Jude Gardner has for the past 4 years taken over the kids program. He and Dave run a program through the Fredonia Parks and Recreation Department. John Arnold still announces at meets, despite his son graduating several years ago. Conti says these are all people who give of their time unselfishly and ask for nothing in return.

“When people ask how do you get to have a great team and stay on top. The answer is not a short or easy one,” Conti said. “It is, without a doubt, a group effort. If one of the pieces is missing, everything has the ability to fall apart.”

The additional financial assistance of the community is critical to the success of the Chautauqua Sports Hall of Fame.
We gratefully acknowledge these individuals and organizations for their generous support.