His being there might not be been an act of providence, but Steve Cifonelli admits that walking into the wrestling room next to the gym at Palisades High “just feels right.”
Indeed, he’s made it his home away from home since being hired in early July to head the Dolphins’ program, left in the lurch when head coach Randy Aguirre died of brain cancer in January.
“I’ve never been a particularly spiritual guy, but Randy has guided me through this whole process and I know he’s looking down and smiling,” Cifonelli says. “Everything just sort of fell into place. I love this sport and don’t know when my last chance to be in the room will be.”
Cifonelli, also a certified P.E. teacher, will stop any student he meets on his way to and from the weight room or fitness center, asking if they’re interested in wrestling — and school hasn’t even started. His unbridled passion, much like that of his predecessor, is ever-present.
“I met Randy two years ago when I was helping Adam Hunter out at Paul Revere,” Cifonelli says. “When tragedy struck, Paul Foxson called and asked if I’d help. So I know a lot of the kids and I even coached some of them at Revere. [Assistant coach] Aldo Juliano gave me a warmup to wear for regionals and the initials on it were R.A. Needless to say, I was interested when the position opened up.”
Juliano, who took over as interim head coach after Aguirre’s passing and will continue to serve as an assistant, claims he Cifonelli hit it off right away.
“The first match he came to, Steve was yelling for our guys to use the same moves I was telling them to use,” Juliano says. “We were on the same page right from the start. I’m still going to help out, but he’s the figurehead. You can see how eager he is to continue Randy’s legacy.”
Aguirre founded the Pali High program in 2011 and in just their third season the Dolphins won the regional title and the inaugural City Dual Championships. Last winter, Palisades was the City runner-up (its highest finish ever) and sent three wrestlers to the CIF state meet — David Rheingold (113 pounds), Brad Boorstin (152) and Kenny Jones (heavyweight) — but they graduated in the spring.
“The biggest thing for those three guys is that they were probably in awe because it was their first time at state,” Cifonelli says. “We want to make that a regular thing. What Randy built in four years is nothing short of amazing! He set the bar so high and Aldo deserves all the credit for keeping this thing going. We’re doing this together but he’s the reason the program’s carried on.”
An example of Cifonelli’s dedication is the time he spent last weekend helping Juliano get the wrestling room ready for practice, which begins in November. He has already started team members on an offseason conditioning regimen. Using monetary contributions from the Optimists Club and the Pali High Booster Club, Cifonelli and Juliano have bought and installed new mats, wall pads, hooks and banners to make “Randy’s House” look new.
“If it wasn’t for the parents writing letters and getting all the kids to write letters who knows what would’ve happened?” Cifonelli says. “I’m excited to be here and I feel lucky to have the support of the parents and administration.”
Palisades is hosting the City Duals on February 13 and the Dolphins are currently ranked No. 2 behind El Camino Real.
“Recruiting in the halls just by being here comes natural,” Cifonelli says. “Becoming a high school coach myself at a young age, having to break down moves, made me more technical.”
Growing up on the East Coast, Cifonelli was an NCAA standout out Temple University in Philadelphia. He went on to coach New Jersey 140-pound state champion Sam Laspata of Glassboro High.
Cifonelli’s resume wrestling resume is quite distinguished. He was a Scholar Athlete for five semesters at Temple and earned the Owl Award for his outstanding contribution to wrestling. He was a freshman All-American, a “T” Award winner as a four-year Temple letterman and graduated second on Temple’s all-time win list.
He was given the Coaching Sportsmanship Award for All South Jersey, was selected to coach in the New Jersey vs. Pennsylvania All-Star Wrestling Meet and is a member of the South Jersey Wrestling Coaches and Officials Association.
Cifonelli first met Juliano while recruiting for Temple.
“Steve’s got college background like Randy did, so he knows about conditioning and training,” Juliano says. “Not only that, he helped us last year so the guys all know him. He knows how to make it fun for the kids.”
Cifonelli, who lives in Northridge, earned his bachelor’s of science degree in health and physical education at Temple in 1984. He moved to Southern California in 2007 and four years later earned his California CLAD certification at Long Beach State. He has three daughters: Lucia (29), Gina (27) and Sophia (24).
He wrestled in the 126- and 134-pound weight divisions at Temple and was ranked fifth in the nation in 1980. He played center field and pitcher for the baseball team at Cortland High (in upstate New York), leading the Syracuse League in hitting his senior year.
“There’s an immense amount of pressure on me to come close to what Randy did and I’m okay with that,” Cifonelli says. “My biggest goal is to get athletes in the room. We’ll try to keep the snowball rolling.”
Pali High senior Kevin Rosen, who won the City Regional championship at 145 pounds in February, said Cifonelli has already earned his respect and that of his teammates.
“We met him at regionals last season and he ran a few practices,” Rosen recalls. “It was around the middle of summer that I heard they hired him and I was really happy. He’s pretty similar to Aldo, but he’s a little more technique oriented. He’s in the room everyday and he’s really enthusiastic.”
Having coached wrestling for 32 years (starting in 1983) and with 18 years of teaching under his belt, Cifonelli knows what it takes to build a successful program or, in this case, sustain one.
“Not only is this Randy’s house, it’s his team and I’m honored to keep it moving,” he continues. “We want to win City and instead of three state qualifiers, I’d like us to have three state placers. It’s not going to happen overnight, but that’s the aim.”
— Steve Galluzzo
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