NISKAYUNA — Joining a varsity sport can be a daunting task for any teenager. There are tryouts, long practices and high expectations.
Niskayuna High School junior Miguel Lorenzo began to wrestle this fall, and faced an additional challenge that most of his peers don't. He needed to learn a sport that very much has its own language — plus, he actually needed to continue to learn English.
Born in the Dominican Republic, Lorenzo arrived in the United States last year. His father immigrated to the United States 13 years ago, and then went through the process to have his son join him locally.
Lorenzo enrolled in the Niskayuna district for the start of this school year, and was thrilled to find out that the Silver Warriors offered "Lucha," the Spanish word for wrestling — though, often, Lorenzo refers to his sport as "fighting."
Lorenzo said he had some familiarity with wrestling growing up, but hadn't participated in the sport until this school year. It was something he wanted to try, but his school in his native country didn't offer the sport.
When he enrolled at Niskayuna, that changed.
"Whoa — I can wrestle," Lorenzo remembered thinking.
And, as it turns out, Lorenzo is pretty good at it. He's made tremendous strides this season both with his wrestling and with improving his English, and has emerged as one of head coach Shaun Neely's top wrestlers. This Saturday at Cool Insuring Arena in Glens Falls, Lorenzo will be one of eight Niskayuna wrestlers to compete in the Section II Division I championships.
That means Lorenzo is several wins away from advancing to the state championships that take place later this month in Albany. While the junior has a natural talent for his sport, it has taken a lot of hard work for him to put himself in the position he now occupies.
"At the beginning of the school year, it was really hard to communicate with him — even trying to get his email and his phone number," Neely said. "It was tough for me to get exactly what I was looking for."
Lorenzo has lived in the United States for the last 15 months, and originally attended Schenectady High School before heading to Niskayuna for this school year. Sometimes, he still struggles with larger words and has to pause to process a word or phrase, but his overall skill with the language has improved tremendously since he first started in the Niskayuna wrestling room last fall.
From the start, though, Lorenzo showed strong potential to succeed in his sport. While understanding verbal instructions wasn't always easy for Lorenzo, his coaches and teammates made sure to help the junior along.
"I would show the move to him, have someone show it to him — it was all visual," Neely said. "He's a good athlete. He's a big, strong kid."
As a father, an educator at the district's Hillside Elementary School and a coach, Neely had the patience to work with Lorenzo. The athlete, at times, did not have as much patience.
"Sometimes, I don't understand the words and I don't know how to explain that I don't understand that word," Lorenzo said. "I go 'OK — let me watch somebody else do it.'"
Part of the problem: Some wrestling phrases — such as "cross face" — don't have a clear translation. But a major help to Lorenzo has been teammate Peter Meshkov, a junior who is one of Niskayuna's top wrestlers . . . and also the president of the school's Spanish club. Lorenzo and Meshkov met early in the school year, and a friendship quickly formed between the classmates.
"We hit it off," Meshkov said. "He's a really funny kid and I like practicing my Spanish with kids my age, so we are joking around all the time.
"When it came to wrestling season, he joined and when he would need help, he would ask me," Meshkov said. "I would offer, too, because sometimes I could see that he didn't understand what Coach was saying."
Meshkov's help as translator was a help on and away from the mat. While Meshkov has been able to help explain wrestling moves and strategies for Lorenzo, he's also been able to help make sure his friend understands when he needs to be at practices and tournaments.
All of that combines to provide guidance, and relief, for Lorenzo.
"He explains himself good in Spanish and I can be 'Oh, that's what [Coach] tried to tell me,'" Lorenzo said.
Beyond their friendship, Meshkov has an appreciation for the challenge Lorenzo is facing. Like Lorenzo, English is Meshkov's second language; Russian is his first.
"I was born in the United States and my parents spoke Russian," Meshkov said. "I would play with the neighbors [to learn English], and in pre-school within a few months I started talking. Within a year-and-a-half, I was speaking like everyone else."
At Saturday's area championships, Meshkov is the No. 1 seed at 170 pounds after finishing second at the Class A tournament last weekend at Bethlehem. Lorenzo enters unseeded at 195 pounds, qualifying for this weekend with his fifth-place finish last weekend. Lorenzo pinned Schenectady's Giovanni Ellrich at 4:37 in the fifth-place final.
"It's exciting, but it's scary at the same time because, whoa, in my first year, I'm going to sectionals. I'm too nervous," Lorenzo said. "It's exciting for me, but I'm scared about it. I don't know how I'm going to do."
Already, though, Lorenzo has achieved a great deal. His teammates and coaches had high hopes for Lorenzo at the start of the season, and they appreciate how much hard work Lorenzo has put in to make his rookie season such a success.
"It's coming together," Meshkov said. "It's awesome to see."
Contact Stan Hudy at [email protected].