DiDonato shedding tears of joy for Viking grappling squad
by Chris Hunt
North Mecklenburg wrestler Joe DiDonato isn’t afraid to cry. In fact, he thinks crying is a badge of honor for a wrestler. By his count, DiDonato has already cried three times this season in North Meck’s dingy wrestling training room.
DiDonato, however, isn’t shedding tears because he’s lost a match this season. Far from it. He’s defeated all four of his competitors this winter, pinning two of them in less than 1 minute, 45 seconds. Against an established Myers Park squad, the Mustangs didn’t even send out a wrestler to face DiDonato in the 152-pound match, preferring to take a forfeit.
It’s safe to say DiDonato has a healthy reputation throughout Mecklenburg County as a wrestler.
DiDonato also isn’t crying over the North Mecklenburg wrestling program, which has struggled to maintain a full roster during his four years of high school. His loyalty to the sport never wavered, even in the program’s darkest times, and now he’s reaping the benefits.
The Viking wrestling team that once teetered on folding appears now to be in good hands under first-year coach Sean Finkbeiner, who’s the third coach to take the helm in four seasons. The energetic Finkbeiner certainly knows how to run a wrestling team. He was an All-American wrestler at Penn State in the early 1990s, and he coached at Hopewell High School from 2001 to 2007.
To be honest, it’s Finkbeiner who’s the reason DiDonato has cried the season. But it isn’t because the two seemed to have bonded early this season. It’s Finkbeiner’s exhausting training regimen that has pushed the Viking wrestler to tears.
The again, the ultra-competitive DiDonato wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I love wrestling because it puts so much demand on you that after you’re done, you can push through anything,” said DiDonato. “So far in (North Meck’s wrestling room), I’ve cried three times and puked twice, but I’d rather cry with these dumbbells than anywhere else.”
In return for getting the most out of DiDonato’s wrestling abilities, Finkbeiner leans on DiDonato and his fellow senior teammate Latham York to set the example for the Vikings’ inexperienced squad. Both wrestlers are tenacious, team-first athletes around whom Finkbeiner hopes to mold North Meck’s surging program. Finkbeiner expects to make the most out of their final year in high school.
“Joe is a physical wrestler,” said Finkbeiner. “He’s a take-them-down, let-them-up and pin-them kind of kid. His style is how wrestling used to be here North Meck, and I use him as the example when we do extra training. The seniors have to work harder than the younger wrestlers, and Joe is pound for pound the strongest wrestler on the team.”
Both coach and wrestler are so in tune, the even think alike. The 152-pound wrester’s favorite quote was made popular by Olympic wrestler and Iowa University all-American Dan Gable, who said, “Once you’ve wrestled, everything else in life is easy.” The exact quote just happens to be signature at the bottom of each and every email sent out by Finkbeiner this winter. DiDonato hopes the stability of an experienced coach and his endless training regimen is enough to turn him into a state champion.
Last season at 135 pounds, DiDonato finished with a record of 32-4. He also won two 4A state tournament matches before falling in the consolation bracket. His trip to the 4A state tournament ended in disappointment, but it only intensified his love for the sport.
There, in the 135-pound division, DiDonato realized his technique was just as strong as his competitors, but he couldn’t match their strength. So, last off-season, DiDonato hit the weights. He worked out until his muscles beg for mercy. He did so without concern for the extra pounds he was adding to his physique. This winter, he returned to the team as a noticeably thicker athlete. He may have jumped up two weight classes to 152 pounds, but he’s confident strength won’t be an issue this season.
DiDonato has come a long way since his freshman season when he competed at 112 pounds.
“In the past, I’ve always cut weight,” said DiDonato. “But at states, I had the technique from all the years of wrestling, but I lost because my strength was holding me back. After the season, I signed up at Elite Fitness in Huntersville and trained there every day.”
Born to wrestle
DiDonato has always wanted to be a wrestler since he was attended middle school in Long Island, New York. His passion survived a move to North Carolina midway through eighth grade, even though Bailey Middle School didn’t offer wrestling at the time. When DiDonato talks about his favorite sport, his tough New York accent sneaks through, telling stories about how the walls of his bedroom have always boasted wrestling posters.
There’s the picture of NCAA Champion and Olympic Gold Medalist Cael Sanderson staring triumphantly from the wall next to a poster with the phrase “Heart Power is Surrendering Nothing” with a picture of two bloody wrestlers tangled up. His room also displays a picture of every NCAA wrestling champion last season, but the highlight of the room has to be the Dan Gable poster with his favorite quote.
“I’ve been wrestling since I can remember,” said DiDonato. “It was never an option not to wrestle. I think wrestling has shaped me as a whole and taught me responsibility. It gave me confidence knowing there’s no excuses on the mat. You can’t blame any teammates; it’s all on you.”
Since his days on Long Island, DiDonato has dreamed of winning a state championship. At the time, he thought it would be a New York state title, but admits he would be just as proud to be called a North Carolina state champion.
It’s safe to say if DiDonato is fortunate enough to reach his goal, there will be more than a few tears shed on the medal stand.