Hammer Wrestling School provides summer training for kids
By Brian Miller For Sun-Times Media June 28, 2011 9:22PM
North Central College graduate and Hammer Wrestling instructor Jacob Sandborn is attacked by Gabriel “Macho Meatball” Sirecusano (right), 7, of Aurora, and Vince Blacconiere, 5, of Aurora, during a wrestling class at NCC. | Brian Powers~Sun-Times Media
Updated: October 26, 2011 12:24AM
Little Vince Blacconiere runs counterclockwise around the brick-walled, black-matted wrestling room at North Central College, his tiny legs bounding with each step as he intermittently turns to smile a big grin at his father who sits in the stands.
The 42-pound, 5-year-old from Aurora does a couple warm-up exercises, runs to get a drink of water, examines his “boo boo” and returns at his dad’s coaxing to watch the teaching of NCC assistant wrestling coach Karl Bratland.
Later, he and 7-year-old Gabriel Siracusano of Aurora — or “Macho Meatball” as he prefers to be called — get into a soft, structured tussle where each throws the other to the ground. It brings a round of laughter to the adults in the wooden bleachers, not concern.
All in a day’s work for Hammer Wrestling School, which runs every Monday and Thursday night at the recently refurbished Cardinals’ wrestling room above the field house.
“He’s always shown interest in wrestling,” said Vince’s father, Mark Blacconiere, who wrestled in high school for DeKalb and later in college. “It’s a good energy waster for him. It’s summertime and he needs to let that energy out. I’m too big to wrestle with him, as much as he wants me to. I like the fact that they have some kids that are his size.”
The name “Hammer” comes from Bratland and a few wrestling buddies describing a guy who was tough as nails and never gave up. The description comes to life when Bratland performs a wrestling move and yells “Hammer!” in a pose similar to that of an airborne superhero landing on the ground at full force.
“We just wanted to create an opportunity for kids of all ages and all levels to be able to wrestle over the summer,” said Bratland, who also plans to continue with some teaching during the school year. “Just to get better and learn from college guys and to have access to a college room, we’re trying to create something of a middle ground of an elite club with college-focused instruction that’s affordable for kids.”
From age five up to soon-to-be seniors in high school, the school has more than 20 patrons. Grown from an idea three years ago, Bratland, 29, along with NCC grad assistant Joe Norton, 23, and several Cardinals’ wrestlers run the school, which is designed to suit several different purposes.
“Wrestling is a sport where you can learn a lot just by watching,” said Norton, who wrestled in the 125-pound weight class. “I’ve been involved in wrestling for 20 years and I can go out and see a high school kid do a new move here and say, ‘I can do that.’ It might work for me, it might not, but I might discover something that could be my go-to move from here on out that I can pass on to other kids.
“From watching Karl, I’ve learned so many things about strength and conditioning, proper warmups and cooldowns, the whole exercise science part of this sport.”
Bratland grew up in the little town of Humboldt, Iowa, where no such opportunities existed despite being in a wrestling hotbed of a state.
“We had to go elsewhere, to the next town over to get coaching,” he said. “There wasn’t a college next door, there weren’t those types of coaches or those types of athletes that could make us better in kindergarten or even in high school. That’s what I wanted to create here. There’s always places where you can go to get better and we wanted to be one of them.”
Technique, drills, mental preparation, conditioning and nutrition are all emphasized. The desire to be perfect through routine persistence is strongly encouraged to get better at any level.
“We have seen the kind of improvement that takes place when wrestlers train in this manner, especially during summer months,” Hammer assistant coach Jake Sandborn said. “We’ve also seen how this program builds self-esteem and promotes a sense of belonging.”
Norton, who wrestled for NCC after coming over from state champion Montini Catholic, loves the challenge of identifying and meeting the needs of each individual.
“With Karl’s help, I’ve been able to learn how to help a high school kid and help an 8-year-old,” said Norton, who is working on his master’s in sports leadership. “You want to keep this kid interested, while not boring that kid. Karl’s very good at that.”
For parents like Mark, schools like this serve several other purposes.
“He came the first week and loved it,” Blacconiere said about the youngest of his three children. “I don’t really want to let him watch UFC or fake wrestling because I think they’re detrimental to kids at a young ages. This is good for kids to get into. It teaches them discipline and respect at a young age.”