2007-04-18 / Front Page
Four-time All-American Gaeta in rare company
Ex-Brave finishes fifth at NCAA Division III wrestling tournament
BY TIM MORRIS
The senior at Springfield (Mass.) College had already earned All-American honors for the fourth time in his career, becoming just the second Springfield wrestler in school history to achieve that milestone of consistency. But that wasn't what Gaeta had on his mind in Dubuque, Iowa, at Loras College in the NCAA Division III Wrestling Championships. He was thinking back to his senior year at Manalapan High School, where he lost the final match of his record-setting career (102 career wins, most in school history) in the seventh/eighth-place consolation match. He didn't want that to happen again.
"I wanted to win," he said. "My senior year at states I didn't wrestle as well as I should have. I wanted to go out and wrestle my hardest. I was going to go out and have fun and enjoy it. "
Gaeta also had revenge on his mind as he was matched up with Rhode Island College's Mike Bonora in the 141-pound consolation match for fifth place. Bonora had beaten Gaeta in the final of the New England Intercollegiate Conference championships two weeks before the NCAAs. Here they were again, wrestling for the third time (Bonora had won both previous meetings). Gaeta got his measure of payback, winning by decision, 6-5, to earn fifth place (Top 8 finishers earn All-American).
"I was satisfied," he pointed out. "Not many people get to do what I did."
Gaeta ran his career record at Springfield to 124-30. In addition to his four All-American certificates, he was a three-time New England College Conference Wrestling Association (NECCWA) champion.
Three years ago, being an All-American was the furthest thing from the ex-Manalapan star's mind. He was third string on a club that has been a New England powerhouse and frequent NCAA participant. Then, things began to fall into place. Injuries to the wrestlers in front of him put him in the lineup.
"The coach said 'you're in,' " recalled Gaeta. "All the cards fell into place."
Like Lou Gehrig replacing Wally Pip, Gaeta stayed in the lineup the rest of his career.
All that was on his mind that first year was to make the adjustment from high school to college wrestling.
"It's the little things," Gaeta said of the difference between scholastic and collegiate wrestling. "You have to fine-tune what you do. You can't be sloppy and you have to wrestle a little bit smarter.
"There are no new moves that you haven't already seen," he added.
It was tough at first for the ex-Brave, who had won four NJSIAA District 21 crowns during his high school career.
"I just went out there and kept getting better," said Gaeta. "After a while, I knew I could hang with the best."
He proved it by winning his first conference title and then going on to place fifth at the NCAAs, earning the first of his four All-American honors.
Gaeta followed that rookie season up with conference titles and two more AA awards (seventh as a sophomore and fifth as a junior).
His senior year would prove to be the most trying for him. Looking to join Richie Monroe (class of 1976) as the only Springfield wrestlers to be All-American four times, his season started late, while he recovered from offseason rotator cuff surgery. When he finally took to the mat, he was in midseason form, winning Most Outstanding Wrestling in his first tournament and pinning four of his five opponents.
But flu symptoms slowed him down near midseason, and when he returned, he just wasn't himself. Turns out, he had pneumonia and he was on the sidelines again.
He did return with less than three weeks to the nationals. He wasn't match-toughened when the conference tournament began, and that may have been the reason that Bonora beat him there, 6-5.
The nationals were next, and with two straight wins, Gaeta was in the semifinals for the first time. He lost to the No. 1 seed and eventual champion, Quincy Osborn of Augsburg, which put him in the wrestle-back, where he ended up wrestling Bonora for fifth place and a chance to make the final match of his career a victory.
Gaeta brought the same work ethic to Springfield that he had developed growing up in Manalapan.
"I always go out there and try my hardest," he said. "That's the way I was taught. Whether you are starting or not, every day you practice hard."
Springfield coach Daryl Arroyo saw that effort from Gaeta every day and noted that it had a positive impact on the team.
"Mike certainly meant a great deal to our program," he said. "Mike has a tremendous work ethic that has certainly rubbed off on his teammates.
"Mike's greatest asset is his mental toughness," he added.
Arroyo said that he hopes to have Gaeta back with the team next year as a graduate assistant coach.
Gaeta, whose goal is to be a physical education teacher and a coach, will begin his student-teaching next semester. Right now, he is the assistant baseball coach at a nearby high school, getting his first taste of coaching (he played football and baseball in addition to wrestling at Manalapan).
"It's awesome," he said of his coaching experience. "It's so much fun. It is totally different than playing. I like it when a player comes up to me for advice. It's a chance for me to give something back.
"I enjoy baseball a lot. I've really gotten into it," he added. "I watch games whenever I can."
Sounds like his new career in coaching is starting on the same winning note that his wrestling career ended on.