Youth coach pins mettle to wrestling mat

Leader: Wrestling is a character-builder, says Alex Pagnotta of Ellicott City, who coaches the Howard County Vipers, a travel team for ages 7 to 15.

Howard At Play

January 06, 2002|By Michael Farine | Michael Farine,SUN STAFF

When speaking to his youth wrestling team, Alex Pagnotta has a favorite phrase. It begins: "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing. ..."

Before you get the wrong impression, there's more:

"However, a win isn't based on the final score. It's based on effort. Give 110 percent effort, and you're a winner."

If that theory also applies to wrestling coaches, then Pagnotta is a winner, as well. The Ellicott City resident expends plenty of effort in coaching the Howard County Vipers, a travel team for wrestlers ages 7 to 15.

Pagnotta, 33, who works in pharmaceutical sales, has been coaching the Vipers for four years.

The squad competes in the Maryland Junior Wrestling League, which consists of 20 teams. The Vipers not only wrestle teams in the area, they also travel to Pennsylvania, Delaware and Virginia.

"The program was started in the late 1980s with one team," said Pagnotta. "It was an in-house [recreation] program. Then it spun off into a travel team with a rec program attached so that the first-year kids could learn the basics of wrestling. Then when they were ready, they could move on to the traveling team.

"We've been able to spin off so that almost every Howard County high school has a rec team now. When the kids are ready, they can wrestle for the Vipers, then at their respective high schools."

Before coaching the Vipers, Pagnotta coached a rec-league wrestling team -- the Mount Hebron Rebels -- for four years.

He also has been coaching youth football and youth lacrosse for seven years. But it is wrestling that Pagnotta loves most. So much so that he keeps a wrestling mat in his basement.

In the sports world, wrestling wasn't Pagnotta's first love.

"Football was my first sport, and the coaches talked me into wrestling," said Pagnotta, who did not begin wrestling until his sophomore year at Glenelg High School, where he won a county title at 167 pounds during his senior season.

Pagnotta, who was born in New Kensington, Pa., went on to play strong safety for three years on the Towson University football team. He is still a football fan, but he seems most enthusiastic when speaking of wrestling.

"Wrestling builds a lot of character," said Pagnotta, who is married with five children, including three sons who compete in youth wrestling. "I've been through a lot of adversity in my life, and wrestling is what I've drawn on to develop my character and to help me deal with things."

Pagnotta's best friend was killed in an automobile accident in 1988. Then, his sister-in-law died in a car wreck in 1992. He said the mental discipline he learned in wrestling helped him cope with the deaths.

"Wrestling is also the first sport I introduced my sons to," he said. "It requires your constant attention. It's a mental sport, as well as a physical one. Behavior in school is helped because of the discipline in wrestling. Once my sons got through wrestling, every other sport came easy to them.

"Wrestling gives you preparedness for everything else. It's an individual sport, as well as a team sport. If you don't work hard and don't stay in good shape, then it's just you out on that mat. Wrestling teaches you to work hard, to be disciplined, to have good dietary habits. The work ethic is just tremendous. Later in life, it teaches you to be disciplined on a job interview and on a job.

"Lessons that you learn in wrestling are so tremendous that you carry it over to anything else you want to do," Pagnotta said.

Wade Wray, commissioner of Howard County youth wrestling, says enthusiasm and dedication are what make Pagnotta a good wrestling coach.

"He has a dedication to sports in general," Wray said. "He puts in long hours, whether it's wrestling in the winter, lacrosse in the spring or football in the fall. He's a regular dad, very busy."

Pagnotta is quick to credit others for the success of the program, including the originators of the Howard County youth wrestling program -- Earl Lauer and Marshall Dauberman. He also credits Wray, as well as his co-coach with the Vipers, Brian Chadwick.

"This is the first year Brian and I have worked together, and he's been great," Pagnotta said. "I rely on a lot of other people to put this thing together. I'm just one piece of the puzzle."

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