Student Athletes of the Month: Wrestling Trio Grapples with Success

Under the guidance of Coach Raul Ortiz (right) wrestlers (from left) Naseer Johnson, Martin Palomeque and Ruben Gray have a shot at competing in the Section finals in February. Photo by Jim Roberts

At three o’clock, the school day ends for high school students, and it’s time to head home and relax, get together with friends, chill. 

Not if you’re a member of the Peekskill High School Red Devils wrestling team. 

Monday through Friday, every week of the wrestling season from November through February, these dedicated young athletes walk across the parking lot from their high school classes to the school district administration building on Elm Street and head to their second home, the wrestling gym, behind the district auditorium. 

Practice starts at 3 pm and goes until 6:30 pm. It’s a long day for these young men, but they are dedicated to their sport. 

Peekskill high school wrestling thrived in the 1990s under legendary coach Matt Moore, who taught in the district for 33 years, taking over the program in 1978. One of Moore’s last Section 1 champions was prominent Peekskill businessman Chappy Manzer. 

For a 20-year period, there was no program in Peekskill. Slowly, first under Mark Telesco, the team was restored. Now, under Coach Raul Ortiz, the Red Devils are back on the mats and producing winning wrestlers. 

“We owe this success to a lot of coaching, a lot of input, and a lot of hard work from our wrestlers,” Coach Ortiz said. “We’ve had great support from the administration – it took a village to get this going.” 

Growing up in Sleepy Hollow, Ortiz was a two-time Section One champ for Sleepy Hollow High School and an all-state wrestler. He wrestled in college at SUNY Cortland and he’s been a physical education teacher at Peekskill High for 10 years.  

Ortiz credits his assistants Bill Thompson and Andre Lee for their important contributions. “It just isn’t me,” he emphasized. Ortiz started with five wrestlers, and now between the varsity and junior varsity there are 42 athletes in the program.  

Three seniors in the program are having outstanding seasons, leading the Red Devils to the return to wrestling championship contention. 

All three placed as top finishers in the recent Westchester County championships held at Yonkers High School on Jan. 20. Ruben Gray placed sixth in the 285-pound category, Naseer Johnson was sixth at 190 pounds, and Martin Palomeque was the first-place finisher at 160 pounds. Each has a shot at making it to the Section finals in February. 

Palomeque made Red Devils history as the school’s first County wrestling champion. The win capped off an incredible week for Palomeque. He was named the Most Outstanding Senior Wrestler in the tournament, after having already been awarded Con Edison’s Athlete of the Week. His record this season is 30 wins and one loss. 

All three student-athletes are focused on their wrestling and their schoolwork, along with community service. They’re looking ahead to colleges to continue their athletic and academic education. 

“My mom always pushed me to do sports,” Palomeque said. “I wasn’t really ever a sports kid, I liked staying inside and playing games, but she made me do a sport every year. One day she said to me ‘wrestle.’ I didn’t want to wrestle but then I wrestled my first match and I fell in love with the sport. 

Johnson found his way to the mats three years ago. “I was introduced to wrestling by Coach Ortiz my sophomore year. I made the transition from basketball to wrestling and I fell in love with the sport after I qualified in my first year in the Sections. 

“You can have all the talent and skill in the world, but grit and determination, in wrestling, that’s what gets you to the top,” he said 

Being a team member is part of the appeal for Gray. “It’s a brotherhood, it’s like being part of a family,” he said. “My coaches make me stay on my academics and they make me push myself in practice. I love wrestling.” 

Palomeque typifies the student-athletes in the Peekskill program. He’s captain of the wrestling team, plays football, is assistant manager of the track and field team, and takes a prominent role in numerous non-sports activities. 

Palomeque is a leading example of “Peekskill Pride,” the motto of the district under Superintendent Dr. David Mauricio. 

Jim Roberts is a veteran freelance reporter whose roots in Peekskill stretch back generations. 

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