Making progress, on and off the mat

Sophomore Jayden O’Halloran lifts Academy at Palumbo assistant wrestling coach Geoff Verallis during a recent practice. Photo/Mark Zimmaro
Sophomore Jayden O’Halloran lifts Academy at Palumbo assistant wrestling coach Geoff Verallis during a recent practice. Photo/Mark Zimmaro

Way upstairs on the sixth floor of the Academy at Palumbo High School, there’s a wrestling renaissance happening.

Nirvana and AC/DC pump through the speakers and the sunlight squeezing through the narrow windows illuminate the sweat splashing down onto the mats as another afternoon of grappling is underway.

They are modern-day gladiators with smiles.

“Wrestling is one of the hardest things they’ll ever do,” Griffins head coach and new athletic director Sam Sheridan says.

Palumbo’s wrestling program has breathed new life thanks to the addition of a coaching staff that includes Geoff Verallis, a three-time Class A champion, Prep New England champion and Prep National All-America during his own high school days at Northfield Mount Hermon High School in Massachusetts before wrestling collegiately at Drexel University. Verallis, along with fellow assistants Richard Rey and Nick Elmer, have made an enormous difference in their short time with the Griffins. They answered the call when Sheridan put out a distress call when the program looked like it might fold last year.

Sophomore Amir Faublas puts a teammate in a hold during a recent Academy at Palumbo wrestling practice. Photo/Mark Zimmaro

“I took over wrestling last year because there was no coach,” said Sheridan, who was an assistant football coach. “I was happy to take the role of head coach to keep the team from collapsing. I can do the paperwork and manage all the non-skill-related wrestling aspects.”

But Sheridan admits, there’s a lot more to sustaining a program and making it a successful one. The Griffins partnered with Beat the Streets Philadelphia, a youth development nonprofit based in University City that is committed to fostering the holistic growth of student-athletes living in at-risk “under-served” communities. 

That’s how the Griffins met Verallis and it was a match made in heaven.

“They lent me Geoff,” Sheridan said. “He wanted to get back into wrestling. We connected and had a casual interview last winter and things went well.”

Academy at Palumbo assistant wrestling coach Geoff Verallis goes over a drill with Griffins wrestlers at a recent practice. Photo/Mark Zimmaro

Verallis has a short commute from his Center City home and he now gives countless hours working with high school wrestlers at Palumbo.

“It’s a lot of fun,” Verallis said. “Wrestling is something I’ve been passionate about my whole life. I started when I was 7 years old and I’ve been wrestling ever since. So it’s nice to be on the other side now as a coach. It’s been fun because we are a newer team and they are mostly first- or second-year wrestlers. To see a lot of these guys pick up the sport so quickly and to be able to compete with other teams at the top of the Public League is awesome.”

Palumbo went 9-3 in dual meets this season, including victories over Public League rivals West Philadelphia, George Washington, Belmont Charter, Abraham Lincoln and Frankford. But there’s more progress than just the win column.

“The greatest thing to see this year is the culture shift,” Verallis said. “Last year there were a lot of first-year wrestlers and everyone was getting their toes wet. This year, we have guys buying in.”

The Academy at Palumbo wrestling team listens to instructions during a practice. Photo/Mark Zimmaro

One is sophomore Jayden O’Halloran, who was named co-captain this year after wrestling his first ever match last season. Working with Verallis, Rey and Elmer has made O’Halloran and his teammates better wrestlers and even better people in general.

“We are really honored to have these coaches that come and help us every day,” said O’Halloran, who wrestles at 139 pounds. “We wouldn’t be a team without them. I don’t think we’d even win a match if it wasn’t for them. They really are great people to have around. Great guys, great vibe. They really pushed me and have become second parents to us, especially for some of the kids around here that don’t have the best parental guidance. They are people we can go to. They are icons to us.”

Rey was recently hired as a physical education teacher at Palumbo after coaching and refereeing wrestling for more than 20 years. Elmer is a four-year medical student who also wrestled at Drexel and was an all-state quarterback for Penns Grove High School’s football team. 

Academy at Palumbo coaches Sam Sheridan (left) and Geoff Verallis talk during a recent wrestling practice. Photo/Mark Zimmaro

The coaching staff has welcomed recruits no matter their level of experience.

“I wrestled in middle school but I didn’t get a whole lot of accurate coaching,” senior co-captain Jordan Waters said. “It was more just the basics and they would send you out there and wrestle. So coming into Palumbo I was kind of intimidated to wrestle. But in 11th grade I asked the team and the overall consensus was that we had great coaches.”

The Griffins’ roster grew from about seven or eight wrestlers last year to a full roster of 16 kids, which includes three girls. The schedule grew, too. Wrestlers are now entering districts with upwards of 15 matches under their belts instead of single digits like last year. Trips included bouts with established non-league opponents like Bristol, Neptune and Penns Grove this season.

Many are flourishing under the new format.

Academy at Palumbo assistant wrestling coach Geoff Verallis demonstrates a drill in front of his team at a recent practice. Photo/Mark Zimmaro

“(Sophomore) Amir Faublas is one of our more seasoned guys,” Verallis said. “He came up through middle school wrestling through the Beat the Streets program so he’s pretty involved and is continuing his success at this level. And Jayden is one of our first-year guys last year who has bought in the most. He’s really stepped up and has become a vocal leader. That’s what we’re looking for, to have guys like that is great.”

Many friendships have been formed over the last year in that stuffy wrestling room six floors up at 11th and Catharine streets.

“We’ve become good friends,” Sheridan said of Verallis. “He’s a Realtor and helped me buy my first house at the end of last season. He’s just an overall great guy.”

Aside from changing Sheridan’s life, Verallis has made an immediate impact on a team of wrestlers.

Academy at Palumbo assistant wrestling coach Geoff Verallis goes over a drill with Griffins wrestlers at a recent practice. Photo/Mark Zimmaro

“He volunteers for the right reasons,” Sheridan said. “He gave up a lot of his time last year. Two and a half hours of practice every day, weekend tournaments, all the dual meets and going on the buses to Northeast Philly — he’s all about mentorship. Obviously we’re all about winning and we want to send kids to regionals and win duals but at the end of the day, it’s about changing the trajectory of these kids’ lives.”

And some of them don’t even know just how hard they are working.

“All these athletes are working extremely hard,” Verallis said. “We don’t tell them but the practices they are participating in are pretty close to a Division I-level practice. They have what it takes to hang and they get better every week.”