'Little Stingers' program readies young wrestlers

By Evan Pajer - Staff Writer
East Hartford - posted Fri., Feb. 15, 2013
Eric Blades leads Connor Lavigne (in red) and his opponent in a wrestling drill during a practice on Feb. 14. Photos by Evan Pajer.
Eric Blades leads Connor Lavigne (in red) and his opponent in a wrestling drill during a practice on Feb. 14. Photos by Evan Pajer.

In a basement training room at East Hartford High School on the night of Feb. 14, a group of children from elementary schools across the town practiced their wrestling techniques in a program one parent called “the best-kept secret at East Hartford High School.”

The program, known as the “Little Stingers,” invites elementary school boys to learn the basics of wrestling, in hopes that they will go on to a new middle school program and eventually to the high school's varsity team.

Coach Steve Konopka said that he worked to revive the program, which had previously been offered at the school before being cancelled. “We had one going, but the coaches lost interest and it stopped,” he said. “I decided to start it back up because we have to stay competitive. Other towns that we face, like Glastonbury and South Windsor, have similar programs in place,” he said. Konopka said that he sees around 20 children each week participate in training, and that he hopes to enter the team into tournaments beginning next year.

Members of Konopka's varsity and junior varsity teams from the high school show up to help on a regular basis. “Everything varsity does, we do,” Konopka said. “The varsity kids can talk to them in the same language.”

Eric Blades, a junior varsity wrestler, said he helps teach the program. “I like showing them what I know,” he said. “They really understand what I teach them.” Blades said that he began helping Konopka teach the program after Konopka asked for volunteers, but that since then he has enjoyed passing his knowledge of the sport on. “When I saw what it was like here, I really began to like it,” he said.

Parents who were in attendance at the practice said their children enjoy the program. “One of the things I've noticed with him is his willingness to participate,” Bill Horan said of his son Liam, age 8. “I thought that two hours twice a week might have been too big of a commitment for an 8-year-old, but he enjoys it.” Horan said he appreciated Konopka's work. “Having a coach with 30 years of experience is a great feather in the cap of East Hartford Parks and Rec,” Horan said.

Kim Schick said her son, Nathan, age 9, had also benefited from the program. "He's improved since he started in December," she said. "It's one of the only sports he enjoys." Schick said that although older programs like those in Glastonbury and South Windsor are better equipped, the East Hartford program is strong. "They wrestled Glastonbury not that long ago, but even though Glastonbury was fully equipped and we weren't, our kids had smiles on their faces when they got thrown." Schick said she is considering enrolling her son in Konopka's summer program.

Michael Lavigne said that his son, Cooper, age 8, had also benefited from the program. Lavigne said that his son was stronger and more confident since he began the program in December. "We now support the high school team, and he wants to get into tournaments," Lavigne said. "He will continue wrestling in middle school."

Konopka said that while the Little Stingers program will close its season in March, he plans to run a summer wrestling camp in July and may potentially offer a summer session of the program.


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