On any given weekday, Ward Melville wrestler Nick Piccininni tightens the chinstrap on his headgear and goes to work. There are miles to log, weights to lift, techniques to improve. There’s practice after school. Then practice after practice, 45 minutes away with his club team, 631 Elite, in East Moriches thrice weekly.
He is no ordinary high school sophomore; he’s not trying to be. Piccininni, a defending state champion, has his sights on winning more titles, wrestling in college and hopefully entering the Summer Olympics. And he works at it year-round. “I wrestle 12 months out of the year because I know that when you put your time in…it makes you successful,” Piccininni says.
At 16 years old, Piccininni is already highly decorated: A state champ with more than 100 victories and a national ranking, which is only given to twenty athletes per weight class. Still it’s clear to all that the best has yet to come. “He’s the best high school wrestler I’ve ever seen,” said Patriots coach Kurt Ferraro. “He’s certainly the best we’ve ever had here. He never takes a day off. He never takes a season off. He will do everything he can to be ready.”
Piccininni comes from a wrestling family. His dad, Anthony, wrestled for Ferraro while they were both at Commack South, and Piccininni’s brother, Anthony Jr., wrestled at Ward Melville. Nick was introduced to the sport at a youth wrestling night in Hauppauge. It wasn’t long after he won three youth state titles and debuted with the Patriots by going 9-1 as a seventh grader.
Then the training wheels came off. The next season Piccininni went 41-2, becoming the first eighth grader to win a Suffolk County title since 1995. Both his success and his shortcomings at states—he settled for third that year—set the stage for his incredible run as a freshman. He finished the year with a 45-0 record and a state championship.
Of last year’s Division I state champions, 11 graduated and two are back for their senior seasons. Then there’s Piccininni, the only Suffolk wrestler to finish the season undefeated. And his championship ended a 31-year drought for the Ward Melville program. Piccininni expects to climb to the mountain again this year, but knows he’s got a target on his back. In the 25 years before Piccininni’s title, 15 wrestlers captured their first state championships as eighth graders or freshmen. Only eight of them reached the apex again, including Wantagh’s Paul Liguori, a state champ in 2006 and 2007, and four-time champ Jesse Jantzen of Shoreham-Wading River.
Even if it isn’t at the forefront of his mind, he’s at least aware of where he could ultimately rank in Suffolk County wrestling history. In an early December tournament at Guilford, CT, Piccininni recorded his 100th career victory, leaving him nearly three full seasons to work toward the 200-win plateau reached by only six Suffolk wrestlers all-time. He even has an outside shot at the Suffolk County career wins record of 227, set by Rocky Point’s Stephen Dutton in 2010.
“Along with his ability, strength and dedication, his intensity is what really sets him apart,” Ferraro says. “He’s the nicest kid off the mat, but before the match, he just has this switch. He is fierce. ‘Fierce’ in capital letters.”
He guards against complacency and Ward Melville coaches do the same. Because Piccininni manhandles his competition it doesn’t mean he can’t improve and get stronger. All his work comes at the expense of what might be considered a normal social life for a high school sophomore. He passes on parties with friends to perfect his craft, is meticulous about what he eats in order to maintain weight and even gave up lacrosse to wrestle full-time. They are sacrifices he’s more than willing to make.
“Wrestlers are a different breed of people,” Piccininni said. “We don’t think like regular people. We’re irrational and we do things differently. On the other hand, if you’re looking to be great, you put aside some of the things that you’re missing out on because this is what I have to do.”
Even as a sophomore, Piccininni has received recruitment material from countless collegiate programs, including schools in the prestigious Big Ten Conference like Minnesota, Michigan and Iowa. And if all goes to plan, it won’t stop there. Piccininni wants to represent the United States in the Olympics.
The path to the heights Piccininni hopes to reach is long, but so are the roads he’s runs, the practices he endures and the list of opponents he’s conquered.