Mesa High School’s wrestling program has a long-standing pedigree as one of the best in the state.
With the mentality that anyone has the potential to become a champion as long as they show up and work hard, coach David DiDomenico has created a welcoming environment that gets the most out of the athletes, which is not always an easy task.
The program has produced numerous state and NCAA champions like former Sun Devil standout Anthony Robles, and easily is one of the post popular athletic teams at Mesa.
“It’s produced a lot of state champions in the past,” said junior John Jarman, who placed fifth at state last year and is eyeing another shot at the state title. “A lot of Mesa’s people don’t start off the best, but they work, and they work their tail off until they become state champions.”
But the popularity isn’t just because of the success that the team has on the mat and the feeling of accomplishment when you compete and win. It’s also because of the strong feeling of family they’re created.
DiDomenico goes out of his way to make sure all of the kids feel like they are important and cared for when they participate in his program. A number of students at Mesa High School are from low-income backgrounds, forcing many students to take on adult responsibilities at a younger age and hindering their ability to fully be present and participate in extracurricular activities such as wrestling.
For him, it’s important that the students to know they have a safe place away from home and an environment that will be supportive and conducive to their growth. It doesn’t matter what it is the kids may need, DiDomenico works to make sure they have it. If his athletes can’t afford the proper headgear they need to participate, he finds a way to make sure they get it.
Just to make sure all of his athletes have an opportunity to eat after practice, DiDomenico makes sure there’s always some sort of food in the wrestling room. From oranges to peanut butter and jelly, he just wants to make sure the kids are taken care of.
“Not all of them have what they need at home, but I can help them with that because this is their home too,” DiDomenico said. “Some parents do the best they can, but some of our areas here in Mesa, they struggle. They don’t have a lot, or there’s other siblings so they aren’t eating as much as their body needs, and that’s not the parents’ fault. That’s just circumstances.”
He also gives kids the chance to get more involved by giving back to the program. By creating jobs within the program, he allows students who may not have otherwise been able to afford to participate earn their place with a little “sweat equity.” From picking up trash at the volleyball games to cleaning the mats, the added responsibilities help build a sense of pride and ownership among the athletes.
“Coach knows that I struggle financially, so he’s always like, ‘Do you want to do a job to help earn some money to pay off the sport?’” sophomore Wyatt Bayer said. “Yeah, of course.”
For some of the student athletes, the biggest battle is making sure they are meeting expectations in the classroom.
DiDomenico does grade checks every Monday to make sure the kids are all academically able to compete, and for some of them, it’s the first time anyone has set any academic expectations for them in their life.
“Champions can be defined in a lot of different ways,” DiDomenico said. “They feel a sense of accomplishment and now they’re achieving a lot more than they thought. They’re a champion in that aspect. They’re a champion by showing up and working all the time even if they’re average in their win-loss record.”
It’s that feeling of accomplishment and pride mixed with the strong-knit sense of family that has led to the success of Mesa’s wrestling program. It doesn’t matter if a wrestler is a freshman or a senior, if they come out and prepare to do their personal best, the program will help bring out the best version of each and every individual who participates.
It’s something that has changed the high school experience for nearly every person in the room.
“It’s really just paying attention to them and holding them to high standards when other people just blow them off,” DiDomenico said. “Nobody flies under the radar. They’re all important. We pay attention to them, and kids want attention. Sometimes it’s just a thumb, but it’s always followed up with some kind of compliment and some way to succeed.”
The way he treats his student athletes has allowed for him to have a greater impact on their lives than he may even possibly realize. In his attempt to create a family atmosphere for the kids, some of them say he also is somewhat of a father figure in their lives, and is someone they look to for guidance because he always expects them to be their best self.
Bayer said the relationship he has with coach DiDomenico and how much he’s taught him and helped him grow is a big reason why he never gave up or stopped trying. He said that it’s because the best advice that DiDomenico ever game him was to just keep going.
Bayer said DiDomenico told him, “whenever it gets hard, or whenever there’s a spot in life where you’re starting to struggle, just keep pushing through and good things will happen.”
Senior Jesus Cardenas, who joined the team this year, agrees with Bayer, saying DiDomenico is always there for support and is one of the most understanding people he’s ever met.
“He’s able to understand and comfort you and not just yell at you,” Cardenas said. “He’s more like a father figure to others rather than a coach because he pushes us to our limits to make sure we succeed, and he makes sure he knows he wants us to succeed.”