EAST PROVIDENCE – They are each defending state champions, leaders in the wrestling room, athletes who walk around with an aura of confidence instilled in them by years of practice and ensuing success on the mat, one on one, against the best that can be found in Rhode Island.
Joao Vicente, a smiling and energetic 126-pounder, has the leadership skills that make it easy for his teammates to follow him. Heavyweight Jonah Aurelio is the smiling giant … Little John in Robin Hood’s band of merry marauders. And 132-pounder Jacob Burrows marches to his own drummer, wrestling seemingly without any fear, ready for all comers.
Head coach Tom Galligan, the real ruler of this team, just smiles when asked about his three state champions.
“I remember seeing Joao when he was the worst wrestler on his middle school team,” Galligan said with a laugh. “Then he started working at the sport. Joao has an incredible work ethic. When he came to us in ninth grade, I made him captain of the varsity! A ninth grader. I’ve never done that before but with a kid who worked as hard as Joao, I wanted him to lead the others.”
Burrows, like Vicente a four-year starter, easily blends in with his teammates.
“Jacob is different,” Galligan said. “He is fearless on the mat. He isn’t afraid to try a big move, and when he throws legs on an opponent, he can really dominate.”
Aurelio, who cuts weight to make the 285-pound weight limit, is not your typical high school heavyweight in Rhode Island. He shows good agility on the mat. He is stronger than anyone he wrestles, and his techniques are good.
“I saw Jonah wrestling in the finals of the middle school New England championsips,” Galligan recalled. “He was getting beat up and then he got tired of it and turned around and pinned his man. He was around 265 pounds then, in seventh grade. Jonah is a compact kid who works hard on his body, lifting weights all the time. And he is quiet. He doesn’t say much, maybe 10 words to me all season.”
Vicente is a National Honor Society student who hopes to wrestle in college, perhaps even at the Division I level. Rhode Island rarely sends a wrestler into the Division I ranks but Vicente, who finished fourth at the New England tourney last March, hopes to make a huge impact at the regional tourney this year.
Vicente, like Aurelio, doesn’t get pushed very often at the state level. He moved up two weight classes this past Monday and dominated a very solid Cumberland 138-pounder named Jon Maccini who will be seeded high in the state tourney. Vicente, lightning-quick on his feet, took Maccini down at will and rode him hard during an 11-2 win.
“Vicente is brutal,” Cumberland coach Steve Gordon said with admiration. “He is New England champion material.”
Aurelio’s match against Cumberland lasted less than 40 seconds, which is typical of his bouts against Rhode Island opponents.
“Jonah doesn’t have anyone to push him in Rhode Island right now,” Galligan said. “Most of his matches are over very quickly.”
Vicente has lost just one match this season. Aurelio is on the same pace. Burrows has lost two or three matches, according to his coach.
The Townies, as a team, are 6-2 on the season, losing only to the top two teams in Rhode Island – Cumberland and Hendricken, who are both undefeated in dual-meets.
“I love this team,” Galligan said. “It has been a crazy season. We run hot and cold. We wrestled terribly at Warwick last Saturday, two days before the Cumberland meet. I told the kids we can’t afford to do that against Cumberland and they responded. That’s a good thing. The kids listen to the coaches. They are a tight group and they really want to learn how to wrestle.”
Elite wrestlers like E.P.’s “Three Kings” learn from coaches outside the high school system. They learn at martial arts and judo schools under instructors who teach them about balance and leverage. Having a background in martial arts goes hand-in-hand with wrestling skills.
“I’m really just one of Joao’s coaches,” Galligan said. “He works with other coaches. Joao works at wrestling every day, all year round. With the great wrestlers that you see in high school, those kids usually learn from a lot of coaches.”
Galligan attributes Vicente’s rise to elite status to a number of things, beginning with his exceptional quickness. He is only 5 feet, 6 inches tall but has long arms for a 126-pounder.
“Joao is a very good student, too,” Galligan said. “He’s looking at a lot of colleges right now.”
Aurelio is just a junior but he, too, should receive interest from Division I schools. Heavyweights with his athleticism are hard to find here in New England.
“It’s amazing to see a kid of Jonah’s size move around the mat the way he does,” Galligan said. “He can carry 300 pounds in the offseason and still look pretty good.”
East Providence has another month of dual-meets to go before heading into the tournament season. The team has a better chance to win the state team title than it does trying to beat deeper Hendricken and Cumberland squads in dual-meets.
“We have three state champions in our lineup,” Vicente said. “We want to go to states this year and win the team title for coach Galligan. East Providence hasn’t won a state team title since 1955. We want to put a state championship banner on the wall for our coach. He deserves it, with all the work he does to get us ready.”