NY to NC: Fairport’s Josh Lackey Talks Winning States as a First-Time Qualifier and Joining Coach Popolizio with the Wolfpack
Josh Lackey, Photo by Boris Veysman
When July 1 arrives, so does the official recruiting period for rising seniors. There are wrestlers who wait anxiously by the phone or who welcome recruiters into their living rooms.
For Josh Lackey of Fairport, the experience was different. He was without question a talented wrestler, but going into his last year of high school, he hadn’t yet made an appearance at the state tournament. In fact, he hadn’t placed at the qualifying tournament – the SuperSectionals, either. He hoped to change all of that as a junior, but a meniscus tear just two days before the SuperSectionals prevented him from participating in the postseason.
The injury threatened to take away activity in the summer – a time during which Lackey felt essential gains would be made in preparation for his last chance on the high school mats. So he decided against surgery and continued on, both working on his skills and beginning to plan his future.
“The doctor told me it was a deep tear, and if I wanted to have surgery I could be out a full six months,” Lackey said. “That would mean missing clubs and summer tournaments to build up my skill level. I thought that time was critical to success the following year and decided to just fight through it while being careful. When it hurt, I took a break.”
He also took some breaks from his workouts during the summer to visit campuses with his parents, during which he spoke to coaches about the college wrestling experience.
“We visited a ton of schools,” Lackey said. “I got a lot out of seeing what different places were like. I talked to some coaches, who gave me a lot of insight into what they expect out of a college wrestler.”
Lackey learned a lot and got a feel for several schools, but he wasn’t sure whether his future would include wrestling or not. In fact, going into his final campaign for the Red Raiders, Lackey thought he would probably hang up his wrestling shoes after leaving Fairport High.
“Going into my senior season, I didn’t think I wanted to wrestle in college,” he said. “It seemed like a huge commitment and I knew I had to either be fully committed and really want it or not do it at all. There’s no in between. Also, when I was talking to those coaches at that point, they weren’t too interested in me. I was 29-11 as a junior and didn’t have much to show for myself yet.”
That wouldn’t last too long. Lackey started his senior year at 220 pounds with an objective of becoming a Sectional champion, but very soon began to set his sights higher. In his first bout of the campaign, he pinned Max Antone of Niagara Wheatfield, who had appeared at the state tournament in 2011.
“Once I beat [Antone], people came up to me and told me I could do more than win Sectionals,” he said. “My goals slowly started creeping higher.”
Indeed, with every win, Lackey began believing he could achieve more. However, his knee injury constantly grounded him.
“It was always on my mind,” Lackey said. “Maybe once a week, it would act up a little bit and I would get a little worried. There was never a time when I felt it was completely healed. It’s always a gamble when you get on the mat because things happen so fast. One bad move, or twist, the rest of the season could be gone. My coaches watched it closely, but there wasn’t a time where I was totally confident in it.”
Despite that, Lackey kept winning, dropping only a single match to eventual 195-pound state champion Tony Fusco of Shenendehowa in December.
When the SuperSectionals rolled around, Lackey made up for his absence the previous year with a dominant performance in which he didn’t yield an offensive point. With another goal crossed off the list, he said his new focus was on placing in the top six in Albany. But when the brackets were released and his name was on the top line as the number one seed, he once again raised his ambitions.
“I started to believe I could be a state champion,” he said. “I wanted to shoot for first.”
A pin and two decisions earned him a spot in the finals against a familiar foe – Antone. In addition to their meeting very early in the season, Lackey had beaten Antone again in late December. (The Niagara Wheatfield grappler lost only one other match the entire season).
“I was glad to be facing [Antone] in the finals because I had wrestled him twice already and I knew what kind of wrestler he was,” Lackey said. “But I also knew I couldn’t be too confident. I saw an article where he was talking about training just to beat me. I never let myself be too confident because I didn’t want to look back and regret anything.”
He didn’t have to, earning a 10-8 decision to complete his 40-1 season. And he made history in the process, giving Fairport High its first-ever state champion.
“I think the greatest thing about being the first one from my school is that I could set new goals for the underclassmen,” he said. “It’s hard to break the barrier to be the first one, but once it’s done, others believe too. I think it sets a new standard for the team for years to come and lets people know that they can win the state championship too.”
The title run attracted the attention of college recruiters as well. But Lackey said schools such as NC State and George Mason were at the top of his list all along, whether he was going to be a student-athlete at the next level or just a student.
“Day to day I changed my mind on whether I wanted to wrestle or not,” he said. “My parents didn’t want to influence me. I decided on NC State on May 1 and I decided that I was going to wrestle a little bit after that. At the end, I realized that if I graduated college without wrestling, I would regret it. It’s such an enriching experience that very few people get the pleasure of doing. I want to take the opportunity and make the most of it.”
The Wolfpack are happy to have him, at either 197 pounds or heavyweight. In the past five years, the NC State roster included only two wrestlers from the state of New York. But with the addition of Lackey, two-time state runner up Sam Speno of Fox Lane and a pair of transfers, All-American heavyweight Nick Gwiazdowski (from Binghamton) and Ryan Fox (Nassau), the roster will have a strong Empire State influence. And with Pat Popolizio at the helm, that is likely to continue.
“I think it will be a great experience to be part of a building team rather than a team that already has had a great track record of success,” he said. “I think the pursuit of success is most rewarding and I think I can be part of building something special at NC State. That definitely contributed to my decision.”