EDWARDSVILLE — The Model Innovative County Summit wrapped up on April 7 at Lewis and Clark’s N.O. Nelson Campus with the Model Leadership Through Service Awards.
Leading the award recipients was Liberty Middle School and Edwardsville Wrestling Club coach A.J. Ciccarelli. A 2006 EHS grad and standout wrestler, Ciccarelli was the individual award winner for his tireless efforts to help better Edwardsville youths through the sport of wrestling.
The business award winner was First Mid-Illinois Bank and Trust, while the organization award went to Riverbend Family Ministries for its community service work.
Ciccarelli was a standout wrestler with the Edwardsville Tigers during his prep career and went on to a superb career at Eastern Illinois and McKendree, transferring to the Lebanon University after EIU cut its wrestling program. He was a 2-time national tournament qualifier at McKendree.
Being able to come back to his old stomping grounds and help mold a new crop of grapplers has been personally rewarding.
“I was very fortunate to come up through Edwardsville and have Mark Mestemacher and Jon Wagner as mentors,” Ciccarelli said. “To be able to come back to that, I can’t even explain how awesome that is. To give back to the program that put me where I’m at, there’s no words for that. I just try to instill the same things that Mark Mestemacher and Jon Wagner did with me.”
This award transcends the sport of wrestling; it’s more about the molding of young men. In wrestling there is sacrifice, discipline and responsibility to be learned. Whether it’s cutting weight to stay in a certain weight class, commitment to improving within the sport, or taking responsibility for a loss during a one-on-one match, wrestling teaches plenty of life lessons.
“You walk off the mat and there is nobody else you can blame other than yourself,” Ciccarelli said. “It is a special sport, but it also has a team aspect, too, and that makes it even more special and that’s what we try to focus on is that team aspect.”
Ciccarelli does a lot of team-building exercises with his wrestlers, nurturing those relationships among teammates and teaching youngsters to work well in groups. Those exercises are important in building life lessons.
“On Wednesdays we take off and do team-building activities,” he said. “It gives them that mental break in the middle of the week. That’s also the same day we do community service hours. We’ve taken them a few places this year, but we really teamed up with Eden Village toward the end of the year. I’d send about 5 kids there every Wednesday as long as it worked out. That’s something I’ll continue. It worked out really well and the kids loved it.”
Ciccarelli has goals as a young coach. Just 29 years old, he has a long career in front of him and lots of young lives to continue to mold.
“I want to get the program as big as it can be,” he said. “I want to expand that out and have our numbers keep growing. We have great numbers. We have about 200 kids in the club program, not counting the 50 or 60 in the high school program every year, so about 250 to 260 kids in the program. I just want that number to keep growing and keep passing this on.”