Leonard became Milford’s pioneer wrestler, Coop legend Despite losing senior season to pandemic, grappling career will continue with college recruitment

Leonard became Milford’s pioneer wrestler, Coop legend Despite losing senior season to pandemic, grappling career will continue with college recruitment

As he could see his senior season of wrestling being washed away by the coronavirus pandemic, 2021 Milford Central School graduate Avery Leonard said he relied on his philosophy of life, “worry about what you can control, let go of everything you can’t control.”

“I have always run with that saying,” he said, Monday, July 19.

Leonard and his father/wrestling coach, Nate Leonard, spoke with AllOtsego.com at their “summer home” on Goodyear Lake, about his career and losing his senior season after spending three years working toward a state title.

Avery Leonard, a 2021 Milford Central School graduate, became the first Wildcat to wrestle for neighbor Cooperstown. He left with his name on the banner that makes the program’s greatest wrestlers. Leonard went 128-13 in three seasons, missing his senior year because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“I saw it coming,” Avery said. “I think I knew as soon as everything changed. With everything going on, they weren’t going to let us have high school wrestling. I understand, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t still suck.”

As a freshman, Leonard became the first Milford student to wrestle for Cooperstown Central School. Although Nate had wrestled and coached wrestling as a volunteer assistant at SUNY Oneonta, Avery had previously played basketball, thinking he would not have the opportunity to wrestle at his little community school.

His freshman year, Avery won 34 matches and became the first Milford wrestler to win a class title, taking the 2018 Section III Class D title at 99 pounds.

His sophomore year, Avery became the first Milford wrestler to win a section title in wrestling and then to place at the state tournament, winning the 2019 Section III Division II title — Division II includes all small school classes — and taking third in DII in the state, both at 106 pounds.

His junior year, Avery became the first Milford wrestler to win 100 matches and placed second in the state in Division II at 120 pounds. The state finals were Feb. 28, 2020, not long before the pandemic shutdown.

Avery’s loss to three-time state champion Anthony Noto, from Honeoye Falls-Lima, in the finals was his last high school match.

“I definitely had complete confidence in myself to get a state championship (as a senior),” he said.
Although he did not get a senior season, Avery received his share of honors, from both of his local schools. Cooperstown put his final school record, 128-13, on a banner of its 100-win wrestlers. Although he only had three seasons, Avery had more wins than all but one Cooperstown wrestler, Packey Burke. His winning percentage, .907%, topped everyone but Burke, too.

Milford went even further than Cooperstown, honoring Avery at its 2021 athletic banquet, despite his season being canceled. MCS Athletic Director Chris Saggese, who was also Avery’s history teacher, made a speech and award presentation to Avery that still has father and son overcome with emotion a month later.

“We do have a pretty tight community in Milford,” Avery said. “The kids I grew up with, I have known most of them since preschool. They knew about my goals the entire time they were happening, so they were very supportive, and they always cheered me on when I had success.”

Avery has continued to wrestle, too. As with many of the “Olympic sports,” the top wrestling competition for teens is not at the high school level. As soon as the pandemic measures allowed it, elite wrestlers were congregating for tournaments around the county and the Leonards were among the competitors. Often, other wrestlers from Nate’s gym in Unadilla, Gorilla Grapplers, were along for the competitions as well. The journey has taken them to Wisconsin, Illinois, Atlantic City, New Jersey, Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and most recently, Virginia Beach for a Memorial Day weekend tournament.

“I think I have wrestled eight times since my last high school match,” Avery said. “Wisconsin in June (2020) was the first after the shutdown. They were strict.”

“Everybody in the building had to have masks on at all times, except the kids for the minutes they were on the mat,” Nate said.

Along with the tournaments, Avery has continued to work out, in and out of the wrestling room, always aware that his long-term goals included wrestling after high school. “That’s the thing that made it, not okay, but made me feel better about not getting a senior season,” he said. “I knew there would be many more wrestling matches in college.”

Avery decided to take a flex year following his June graduation from MCS. Newly 18, what he and his dad wanted most about the recruiting experience was for him to be able to go into a college’s wrestling room, to meet the team’s other wrestlers and to experience the vibe a college program gave off. Impossible during the pandemic, they decided to delay for a year until better recruiting opportunities could be offered.

“What is exciting to me as a dad is that Avery has barely even scratched the surface of his full potential,” Nate said. “I am looking forward to seeing what an elite college coach can make of him.”

Avery said his targets are two of the top Division III wrestling programs in the region, Ithaca College and Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island. Until fall 2022, he will work toward his college goals.

“I might get a part-time job, but to be honest, my focus is on working out and preparing for college wrestling,” he said.

“Avery has also decided to dedicate himself to coaching and focusing on helping the other wrestlers in the area,” Nate said. “I have a good group of about six or seven younger kids who have already placed at the state tournament, and they are learning from him. It is great to see him take the time to give back and help other athletes see what it takes to be an elite wrestler.”

Housed in a converted barn along state Route 7 in Unadilla, the Gorilla Grappers wrestling room has had a big reach. Nate coaches wrestlers from at least three counties, Delaware, Chenango and Otsego, usually at least three times a week. He had been building a big following among the Cooperstown/Milford athletes until the pandemic caused everyone to pull back.

“For me that is the continuing aspect that hurt Cooperstown and Milford with COVID,” Nate said. “(CCS wrestling coach) Mike Croft and I were building something. We had some of the Cooperstown kids driving all the way down to Unadilla. That all stopped last year with the pandemic. That hurt really bad.”

For Avery, he said he wants to make sure he leaves something behind at Milford, too. He said he wants to be the start of the wrestling tradition, not a one-off success story. He had a younger protege, T.J. O’Connor, who had great success as a seventh and eighth grader wrestling for Cooperstown while attending MCS. O’Connor moved to Oneonta last year, and his status is uncertain for next year, Nate said.

“I do feel like I started something to some extent,” Avery said. “I don’t want it to end there. I definitely want other kids to keep doing well at wrestling with Milford and Cooperstown.”

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