The world of sports is no stranger to near-constant coaching changes, with some teams considering installing a revolving door in the coach’s office. That has not been the case for the McMaster wrestling team as it has been under the watchful eye of coach Nick Cipriano for the last 36 years.
But at the end of the 2016-2017 season that ended with an Ontario University Athletics silver medal finish for the men’s team and fourth place for the women’s team, Cipriano decided to hang up the singlet and left a big pair of shoes to fill for the team’s next head coach.
Enter Cleo Ncube, a Kingston-raised Canadian national team veteran who spent time training with the Montreal Wrestling Club, one of the premier programs in Canada. Ncube is accustomed to being around talented individuals, as the club has produced over a dozen Olympic athletes since its founding.
No matter the pedigree, taking up a head coach’s mantle, especially from someone who has held the title for multiple decades, is never an easy task. But amidst the various changes and adjustments that come with a coaching change, coach Ncube is already off to a great start.
Fourth-year Jenna Leslie, who has wrestled for the women’s team since her first year, noted the considerable changes over the course of this transitional offseason and how Ncube has handled his new role.
“Cleo is a phenomenal coach,” said Leslie. “With a new coach it is always different and getting used to that coaching style definitely takes time. There are some growing pains. He’s still getting used to coaching us, we’re still getting used to a new coach. But he is very patient, very willing to work with everyone on the team — no matter what level they’re at, no matter what their goals are for the season.”
According to the veteran wrestler, who has been wrestling since middle school, coach Ncube’s style is very accommodating and he makes sure to take time to work with each wrestler individually.
“He always says if we are committed he will be there, and he will be there to help us reach whatever goals we have,” Leslie said. “He’s very accommodating and everything that he does is very individualized to the athlete. So when you are in a match and he is telling you to do something, he knows that you know how to do that technique because he has shown you and you’ve worked on it with him. He is very [much there] for the athletes, and wants us to do well. And he’s willing to put in the effort for that.”
This individualized approach has worked to revitalize the wrestling team and has wrestlers excited for the upcoming season. Among the most excited wrestler is Leslie who is coming off an OUA bronze medal in the women’s 59 kg category last season. This year, Leslie has her sights set high: to medal at OUAs again and compete nationally at the U Sports tournament in 2018.
“I had some close matches at OUA, it was one of my best tournaments last season,” explained Leslie. “The one match I lost was against a girl I wrestled two weeks before and she beat me 11-1. At OUAs, she was my first match and I was winning with a minute left and got thrown, but I still want to say it was one of my best matches of the day. That’s the weird thing about the sport: you can lose a match but it can still be better than a match that you won.”
Leslie has a long history with the sport, tracing her early days of wrestling to Grade 8, when a sprightly 90 lb girl was keen to try out for her school’s team. She soon became one of two girls among roughly 20 boys who made up the school team.
Leslie spent most of her career training and wrestling with the boys, but found it to her advantage as they would work to push each other, and the men’s and women’s teams both train together today. According to Leslie, male and female wrestlers have different patterns and tendencies so there are positives in wrestling with both men and women.
Leslie continued to wrestle throughout middle school, dedicating the next five years of her life to the sport. So it was an obvious choice to continue this into a collegiate career.
“When I was applying to university I was like ‘I can’t not wrestle,’” Leslie explained. “I was drawn to Mac for many reasons. I had met girls from the team when I was still in high school so I came down here and trained with them a few times and immediately just felt like this team was such a great fit for me.”
“I knew right away that the team had such a different feel than other schools and other teams I had been around. As soon I was at Mac and training with their team, it just clicked. I knew that the atmosphere and all that was exactly what I was looking for,” she added.
From her dedication to the sport and the time she has spent at McMaster, Leslie easily exemplifies a sense of team unity and camaraderie that is characteristic of this Marauders wrestling team. In a sport that features only individual matches, it is often tough to form a team mindset when you are not fighting to win directly alongside your teammates.
“I just want to wrestle the best that I can and see the team grow, compete and do well as a full team,” said Leslie. “Last year, our women’s team did place better than the last 10 years at OUAs. I hope we can continue to grow on that can continue to be a more competitive team. We have the potential to do it and we have room to grow. With some of the first years coming in and some of the other girls becoming more comfortable and already seeing the amount of improvement from last year to this year, I’m really excited to see how the season goes and see how it plays out.”
At the end of October, the Marauders participated in the Concordia Invitational as their first tournament of the season, sending only members form the women’s team to this smaller event in Quebec. Despite the smaller size, the team encountered a lot of tough matches but were able to place highly.
At the event, rookie Olivia Menard finished second at 48 kilograms, Jenna Leslie placed third in the 59 kg category and rookie Sandra Bay also finished third in the 63 kg category.
The Mac women were able to bring this momentum back home as the team was able to officially kick off the season in a welcoming environment, hosting the annual McMaster Invitational in Burridge Gym. In a tournament that featured over 150 athletes from across 20 university and club teams, the Marauders women’s team finished fifth overall, with the men’s team placing fourth overall.
“I think it is a really good predictor for the rest of the season,” Leslie said. “There were definitely some tough match-ups but the team in general did really well. Everyone wrestled well and the Mac Open is always a good start. I always like how it is the start of the season.”
While the teams missed the podium collectively, several individual Marauders placed highly in their respective weight class. Fourth-year Erik Joy, the 2017 U Sports bronze medallist, came first at 68 kilograms while Ameen Aghamirian also came first in his weight class (100 kg).
The rookie wrestlers also continued to shine as Olivia Menard finished second at 48 kg and Connor Quinton finished second at 65 kg. Rounding out the top finishes for the women’s team, Leslie added another third place finish on the young season, this time in the 55 kilogram category.
Next up, the Marauders will head to the Ryerson Open on Nov. 11, the second last tournament before the Ontario Senior Championships in Kitchener on Nov. 25. After an offseason of changes and new routines, the Mac wrestling team is ready and able to resume their dominance on the Canadian wrestling scene. This sure promises to be an exciting season.