When Paul Gillespie took over the varsity wrestling program at Long Beach High School in early 1978, a single student signed up for the program. Call it a modest start to a distinguished 18-year coaching career at LBHS: 17 county titles, 17 conference championships, two New York State titles, and national rankings of 7th in 1982 and 13th in 1987.
“I really thought I was going to have a hard time starting the program,” Gillespie recalled.
That September, though, he gathered a team of 17 wrestlers and won the conference. Over his Long Beach career, Gillespie amassed a 110-1 record in the league.
Now Gillespie, 61, has returned to his winning ways in his first year at the helm in Wantagh after a hiatus from head coaching. Wantagh captured the Nassau County dual meet title on Jan. 28. Two weeks later, Gillespie's team had two wrestlers win individual county titles and 12 earn All-County honors at the individual county wrestling championships at Hofstra.
“It was a good feeling because I worked very hard prior to the season,” Gillespie said. “We got a lot done with the preparation with the kids. I put a lot of time in, and I worked with the youth program, which has paid off.”
After Gillespie first returned to coaching at Oceanside High School in 2001 — winning two conferences and, during his second year, knocking off second-ranked Long Beach — he left after three years to focus on coaching his son, P.J., a standout wrestler at both LBHS and Hofstra. The LBHS product earned All-American honors in 2011 and as a senior this past season won a Colonial Athletic Association title at 165 pounds. He closed his college career competing at the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships in St. Louis earlier this month.
While at Hofstra, Gillespie met wrestling coaches from Wantagh who were looking for help, and he signed up as an assistant at the high school. Four years later with another county tile under his belt, Gillespie looks to keep winning. “We have a great youth program over at Wantagh now and in a few years we’re going to be very, very good,” he said.
Similarly, the coach attributes his success in Long Beach to the youth programs he helped establish. The first standout wrestler he coached was Al Palacio, a three-time state champion who attended the University of North Carolina on a full scholarship, where he earned two-time All American honors. Palacio’s nephew, .
Today, about ten of Gillespie’s former Long Beach wrestlers coach against him at other schools, from Hewlett to Island Trees. He cites one of them, assistant varsity coach in Long Beach John Anfossi, who wrestled for him from 1987 to 1989, as one of his all-time outstandouts.
“He was one of my guys who really took wrestling seriously and he learned a lot about life,” said Gillespie, who was a two-time All American at West Chester State University. “I’m very proud of him.”
Anfossi attributed Gillespie’s success to his commitment to his wrestlers and the sport. “He was a constant in our lives, someone who was an advocate for us, when not all of us had parents who could be advocates for us,” said Anfossi, a dean at Long Beach schools.
Anfossi remembered Gillespie would drive his wrestlers to tournaments from New Jersey to Virginia, in the days before school-sponsored bus transportation, and everything was paid out of his pocket. Gillespie had Anfossi and his teammates rise early in the morning to lift weights before classes, and then had them wrestling until 6:30 p.m., and in between he would check up on them in their classrooms.
“He truly looked out for us,” Anfossi said, “and his commitment allowed us to give that commitment back to him.”
* Andrew Coen contributed to this story.