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Concord Coach Munnell’s wrestling tree keeps growing

  • Bedford wrestling coach Bob Benincasa.  (Alan MacRae/for the Monitor)

    Bedford wrestling coach Bob Benincasa. (Alan MacRae/for the Monitor)

  • Winnisquam wrestling coach Paul Hrycuna.  (Alan MacRae/for the Monitor)

    Winnisquam wrestling coach Paul Hrycuna. (Alan MacRae/for the Monitor)

  • Hollis-Brookline freshman Caleb Lomme grimmaces under pressure from Concord Senior Ben Nawn in the 145 pound weight class at Concord High School on Saturday, January 26, 2013.  (Alan MacRae/for the Monitor)

    Hollis-Brookline freshman Caleb Lomme grimmaces under pressure from Concord Senior Ben Nawn in the 145 pound weight class at Concord High School on Saturday, January 26, 2013. (Alan MacRae/for the Monitor)

  • Bedford wrestling coach Bob Benincasa.  (Alan MacRae/for the Monitor)
  • Winnisquam wrestling coach Paul Hrycuna.  (Alan MacRae/for the Monitor)
  • Hollis-Brookline freshman Caleb Lomme grimmaces under pressure from Concord Senior Ben Nawn in the 145 pound weight class at Concord High School on Saturday, January 26, 2013.  (Alan MacRae/for the Monitor)

After 17 years on the job, Ham Munnell is developing more than just wrestlers at Concord High. He’s creating wrestling coaches.

Munnell has a staff loaded with former wrestlers, including longtime assistants Nick “Tiny” Zeras and Chrigus Boezeman. Paul Hrycuna, who wrestled for the Crimson Tide from 2002-05, is now the head coach at Winnisquam after assisting Munnell at Concord for the last six years. And Bob Benincasa, Munnell’s first assistant coach, built the program at Winnacunnet into a contender before taking over the Bedford team two years ago.

“Working under Ham was a great experience and he was such a valuable mentor,” said Benincasa, whose nephew, Vinny, is a senior captain for Concord this year. “But I also had bigger goals. I wanted to take over a program and do the things Ham was doing. I wanted to grow a program, create great wrestlers, create a great atmosphere around wrestling in the high school, and I learned a lot of those things from him.”

Once Benincasa arrived at Winnacunnet in 2003, he realized there was still more he needed to learn from Munnell, and he didn’t hesitate to ask.

“There’s just that mountain of paperwork that comes along with the job, so sometimes I needed Ham’s advice and experience on how exactly he handled some of those situations,” Benincasa said. “It was good to have him to lean on, and I did quite a few times that first year.”

Bill Whitmore has had a first-hand view of both Munnell and Benincasa building programs. Whitmore was the athletic director when Munnell began coaching at Concord, he recommended Benincasa for the job at Winnacunnet, and when that job ended he brought Benincasa to Bedford.

“It’s been kind of neat to watch the progression for both of them,” said Whitmore, who added that he’s seen many similarities in the two building processes. “And they’ve both done great things.”

Munnell led Concord to the Class L title in 1997 and ’98, a co-championship in 2000 and eight Class L/Division I runner-up results since then. Benincasa brought Winnacunnet from a beginning program to a second-place finish at the D-I championships in 2010. And Bedford, one of the D-II favorites this year, finished an impressive fourth at the Meet of Champions, last season.

While Benincasa was ready to take on his own program, it’s not so easy for others to leave Concord. Zeras, who Munnell called “the real workhorse of the program,” has been an assistant for 11 years. Boezeman, who runs the JV program, has been there for 10 years. And Hrycuna never imagined himself leaving until it actually happened just weeks before this season began.

“When Zach Medlock (the Winnisquam AD) was talking to me about it I was thinking in my head, ‘Good luck pulling me away from Concord,’ ” Hrycuna said. “I didn’t see how he could do it.”

Hrycuna had an extra-strong bond to the Tide program. He said he was “a pretty off-track kid,” and that joining the wrestling team taught him “dedication and self-control. It was probably the thing that saved me in high school.”

He didn’t plan on coming back to the program after he graduated, but things didn’t work out at college, and within a year he was back in Concord and, after some encouragement from Munnell, helping out with the team.

Hrycuna then got a job at the high school and started working toward a career in education. Once again, he had found himself through Concord wrestling, which is why he couldn’t imagine life without it. But his job as an educational consultant had him working at Winnisquam this fall (which is how he Medlock found him), and kids around school started asking him if he was going to be their new wrestling coach.

“These kids wanted a program, they wanted to wrestle, they wanted what we have in Concord, but nobody was giving it to them, that’s what brought me in,” Hrycuna said. “And there are so many coaches in Concord, I knew they would be fine without me.”

In addition to Zeras (Concord High Class of 1998) and Boezeman (Class of 2000), there are four other former Tide wrestlers on the Concord staff: Travis Paige (2004), Dan Breen (2007), Dan Herrick (2009) and Bob Daniels (2010). And John Hall (Class of 2010) is an assistant at Rundlett Middle School, the Concord feeder program where Boezeman and Paige also spent a year as coaches.

“These guys come back, they stay for a long time, and they give back to the program,” Munnell said. “I think it says they had a great experience and they’re trying to give something back to the kids. So yeah, I’m proud of that, it makes me feel good.”

Returning alumni is just another aspect of the Concord program that both Benincasa and Hyrcuna are trying to develop at their schools.

“I explain to my wrestlers at Winnisquam, this doesn’t end here. When you guys sign up for this program, it’s a lifelong thing,” Hrycuna said. “It’s not, ‘Okay you graduated, see you later.’ It’s, ‘When are you going to be back?’ ”

Many of the top high school wrestling programs have this recycling of alumni – it’s part of what makes those teams successful. It’s also something that’s innate to the sport.

“The sport happens on such a personal level, you share so much effort and blood and sweat and tears with these guys, that it creates these great relationships,” Benincasa said. “The kids see how much work their coach puts in and then they want to do the same for the next kids that come along.”

Still, Munnell has clearly created a special program that is producing special results.

“For all the hard work I know I did and everyone else has done at Concord, Ham has been there longer and he’s been doing all those same things,” Hrycuna said. “The passion he has for wrestling is all I’ve seen, it’s what I know. It inspired me, it brought me back and it kept me going.”

(Tim O’Sullivan can be reached at 369-3371 or tosullivan@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @timosullivan20.)

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