WILMINGTON — On a recent Wednesday night, there was a buzz inside the St. E Center. That’s not surprising, given the success of the St. Elizabeth High School boys and girls basketball teams in recent years. On this evening, however, there were no bouncing balls, and the scoreboard counted down two minutes at a time, not eight.
For the first time since 2010-11, St. Elizabeth is sponsoring a wrestling team. Twenty boys are on the roster, more than double the eight who wrestled the last time the Vikings rolled out the mats nine years ago. And there is excitement in the school community.
The Vikings have turned to one of Delaware’s first families of wrestling to resurrect the program. Brandon Dooley, a standout for St. Georges Tech and William Penn high schools and an individual state champion in 2015, is the head coach. He was brought on board by his father, Marvin, the St. Elizabeth athletic director and a two-time individual state champ for Penn in the 1980s.
Marvin Dooley is in his second year as athletic director.
Resurrecting the wrestling program was on his to-do-list from day one.
“When I took over, I told (school president) Joe Papili that within two to three years, I wanted to have wrestling back. I think wrestling’s vital to all your sports programs. It helps the kids who don’t play basketball have something to do,” he said.
“I believe wrestling has taught me the most of any sport I ever did in my life the values of discipline, being part of a team, cutting the weight, the daily practice grind. I was in the best shape of my life in high school because of wrestling. I always thought it made me a better football player.”
Marvin Dooley also coached at William Penn, but he gave that up a few years ago. He talked his son into taking over the Vikings.
“If he didn’t come, I probably would have had to come out of retirement, and I didn’t want to come out of retirement,” Marvin Dooley said.
Brandon was an elite athlete at William Penn, where he earned first-team all-state honors in football, wrestling and baseball as a junior in 2014-15. (Marvin Dooley also was first-team all-state in three sports.) His senior wrestling season was cut short by a knee injury. He is pleased with the progress of the program in such a short time.
“So far, it’s been really good. Having a first-year team and being able to fill your lineup is one of the biggest things. We have all 14 weight classes filled. We have a lot of kids that are interested in wrestling and really want to pick up the sport. We also have a couple of kids who have wrestled before. They just didn’t wrestle in high school because they didn’t have wrestling,” he said.
Brandon Dooley previously coached in New Jersey, where “everybody knew wrestling.” He said coming to a school where that isn’t the case has made him a better coach because he had to go back to the basics.
He has brought in some familiar faces to help him build the program. The assistant coaches are all William Penn guys: Dom Trotta, Brandon Pike and Dooley’s brother, Nick. They range in age from 19 to 26. Brandon Dooley believes the youth of the staff helps them relate to the wrestlers. The young men they are coaching have not tested the staff.
“They’re all great kids,” said Brandon Dooley, 22. “The respect has never been an issue. It has let me build a bond between them faster than an older coach.”
The roster includes six freshmen and an eighth-grader, along with five sophomores. Ben Pfeil is one of four seniors and a team captain wrestling at 160 pounds. Like the majority of the team, he had never wrestled before this season. He is happy he signed up.
“I was on the football team all four years, and once Coach Dooley got here, he started talking about reinstating the wrestling program, and I thought it would be a good thing to do,” Pfeil said. “It’s actually been really fun. It’s something I didn’t think I’d be very good at, but it’s something I really enjoy.”
Lawrence Kindbeiter, a junior who wrestles at 182 pounds, also had no background in the sport. He trusted Marvin Dooley’s reasoning about why he should give it a try.
“Basically, he told me it would help me with my football, so I thought why not give it a try, get better. The most difficult part is knowing when to use each move. That’s the most challenging part of it. Wrestling overall helps you use your body more fluently. You know how to use everything,” Kindbeiter said.
Marvin Dooley said he had never wrestled until he was a freshman at William Penn. His coach, Salesianum School graduate Jack Holloway, was one of the most successful in Delaware history, so Dooley listened to what he had to say. Holloway said if Dooley wanted to be a linebacker on the football team, he needed to wrestle. Dooley said the sport gave him much more than that.
“I always thought wrestling gave you values. It’s not just about wins and losses. I think wrestling gives you the tools to be successful in life. So that’s why I always wanted that,” he said.
He credited his son and the other coaches at St. Elizabeth with creating an environment that attracted athletes.
“He’s done a great job,” Marvin Dooley said. “I’m really proud of what he and his staff have done to make wrestling fun. Wrestling isn’t always the funnest sport. We kind of changed the mentality a little bit. He went out of his way a little bit to make the sport fun.
“It’s nice when you walk into the lunch room and kids are talking about wrestling practice.”
The fast start helped, Brandon Dooley said. “The first couple weeks our kids weren’t sure about how enthusiastic the school was going to be. But now that we’ve gotten off to this start, and we had a couple of kids place at the Brandywine tournament, the school is really buzzing now about us. The kids around school are talking about this as their team.”
Kindbeiter and Pfeil said the support from the school community has been great early on, and they believe it will only grow.
“I hope to see more people come out, and hopefully we get a few state championship wrestlers. It would be nice to see,” Kindbeiter said.