DANBURY WRESTLING Jack inspiring next generation
DANBURY — The success of the Danbury wrestling program in no small way is tied to its stellar youth program, which has had many participants that have walked the halls of Stadley Rough Elementary School.
One alumnus might be the best the city has ever produced.
Ryan Jack — who wrestles at 126 pounds — is on his way to rewriting the record book for the Hatters, the top program in the state over the past three decades. The junior spent part of Friday afternoon at Stadley Rough reading author and WWE Superstar John Cena’s children’s book “Elbow Grease.”
Jack was a bit reserved when he first began to read, but he opened up when the eager class asked him questions, spanning from if he had a girlfriend to the key to his success on the mat.
“They warned me this was going happen, so I was trying to get myself prepared for all these questions,” Jack said. “I wasn’t hoping to read in front of the kids, but I like answering kids’ questions and giving them advice. It’s good because it’s fun when kids look up to you and you can help them. Hopefully some of them wrestle.”
The role model for hard work and determination has changed little since his elementary school days.
“He was quiet but had lots of fun and laughs,” said Danielle Catanese, who taught Jack at the school for two years. “He was very even, and he got along with everyone. He was a great kid to have. He always had a big heart; he was geared towards kids with special needs and he always wanted to help. He always made everyone feel included.”
Press clippings decorate a board in Catanese’s fourth-grade classroom. One of her students is part of the youth program. Jack sat in the same classroom close to a decade ago dreaming of being one of the best wrestlers in the state.
Stadley Rough holds a special place for both Hatters coach Ricky Shook and Jack’s family. Shook’s wife works at the school, and their children attended, too. It is the epicenter of a strong effort to get youngsters involved with the sport.
Jack had a pretty good role model to look up to at home, too. Older brother Kevin blazed the same trail four years earlier, winning numerous high school championships before succeeding at the next level. He graduated from North Carolina State — where Ryan will also attend along with current Wolfpack freshman and former Hatter Jakob Camacho — having earned All-American status the previous three years.
“They were pretty athletic and good at every sport,” Shook said. “Size-wise football wasn’t going to be in the cards, but they probably would have been really good at (soccer or basketball). But they put a lot of time in. All the good guys put the time in and it’s a year-round thing.”
Ryan began in kindergarten at the behest of Kevin and his friend Steven Beckham. It didn’t begin smoothly though, and Ryan decided to quit the sport after one season. Kevin continued needling his younger sibling, though, and Ryan rejoined in first grade.
“I thought it was a weird sport before I started doing it,” Ryan said. “I tried in kindergarten because they all wanted me to. I was nervous going out there for the first month or two. I won states in first grade so I just stuck with it.”
He won a state title then. It hasn’t stopped since.
He tried other sports, but wrestling quickly became a year-round venture. The competition between the two siblings was beyond fierce, though. Matches between the two often ended with disagreements.
“On the trampoline we used to wrestle, and Kevin kept beating me, so I kind of punched him in the face,” Ryan joked. “I was probably in fifth grade and we got competitive back then. We always want to win and I hate watching him beat me.”
Ryan has been a key force behind Danbury’s ascent to the top of the state. The Hatters have won the last three State Opens and have claimed two New England championships. Jack broke the record for most individual first-place medals in a single season in 2018-19, the last of which came in winning the New England title.
The highlight of the season came in the Eastern States tournament, where Jack bested the most competitive field of the winter to earn the crown in New York. He became the fourth standout from the school to do so. Prior to the year Ryan spent time with Kevin in Raleigh; the two underwent an intense training program to get the younger Jack ready to accomplish his big goals.
“Spending the two months down there helped me out a lot,” Ryan said. “I’m just grateful for the opportunity to go down there; just him helping me and spending his whole summer to make me better. I appreciated that.”
One accomplishment that has evaded Kevin, Camacho — former Hatter and current Wolfpack freshman — or any other grappler in Danbury history is a NHSCA national championship. Ryan will have two opportunities in the next two seasons, the first of which comes March 29-31 in Virginia Beach, Va.. Each high school class holds its own tournament with the four winners facing one another to determine a sole champion. Kevin placed fourth as a junior and third as a senior, a mark Ryan — who finished sixth last year — hopes to beat.
“I can’t wait because no one has won that. I want to be the first one to win it,” Jack said. “I’d definitely have something to brag about.”
And when Jack heads south to Raleigh in 15 months, the next generation of Stadley graduates will strive to perform just like him.
“I remember RJ’s mom walking around the school pregnant with twins (Ryan has a twin sister),” Shook said. “They’re close friends; I’ve known RJ since he was very little. It’s like he’s a son; he is a part of our family. I’ve been lucky enough to coach a lot of kids like that.”