A summer of anguish

Six kids give up some of their vacation time to work out at Jason D'Agata's intense Iowa-style wrestling camp.

Published June 18, 2006

NEW PORT RICHEY - The generic structure known as Gulf High's wrestling room is reminiscent of the smaller buildings scattered across military bases.

There are few doors, no windows, no air conditioning.

The nondescript walls look sturdy enough to withstand a nuclear blast.

Outside, the thermometer on this June afternoon climbs into the 90s. Inside, beads of sweat dripping down one's neck are the only heat gauge needed.

Across the room, beyond two rows of wrestling mats, stands Jason D'Agata. Dressed in sweat pants and a jacket, he barks commands at the six kids crazy enough to give up a few hours of summer vacation for an afternoon of sheer anguish.

This is his ideal. This is D'Agata's Iowa-style wrestling club.

D'Agata, a former Ridgewood star and member of the 1999 group dubbed "Murderers Row," learned Iowa-style wrestling during his three seasons at Iowa. The Hawkeye wrestling program is considered one of the elite models, and its style is aimed at wearing out and humiliating opponents while entertaining fans.

"I realized (that) to be the best, you have to be around the best," D'Agata said. "My only goal was to be the best."

D'Agata was introduced to the Iowa style at Ridgewood, which he learned under Vinnie Lowe. The former Rams coach said he idolized Dan Gable, the legendary Iowa coach who was ruthless on and off the mat.

Gable, a three-time All-American, amassed a 182-1 record at Iowa State, including two NCAA titles. His most significant feat was winning the 1972 Olympic gold medal without surrendering a point in six matches.

As Iowa's coach, Gable led the Hawkeyes to 15 national titles and a 355-21-5 record. His reputation was built on bullying and embarrassing the opposition.

"I tried to bring that to our kids," said Lowe, now a coach at Katy (Texas) High. "It's domination, in your face, wear your opponents out until you can physically and mentally break them. That was the goal of our kids on the mat

"Jason took that one step further to go to Iowa."

D'Agata first spent three semesters at Upper Iowa College, then contacted Hawkeye coach Tom Brands about walking on. One tryout earned him a roster spot.

Iowa taught D'Agata everything he could have hoped as he struggled to earn a starting spot. His career ended with a record of 17-27-2. He even learned from Gable, who was a fixture at Hawkeye practices.

Along with the storied experience of Iowa wrestling was a painful life lesson.

In February 2005, D'Agata's then-girlfriend and current fiance accused former Iowa assistant Joe Williams of sexual harassment for an incident she said occurred in November 2003. According to a police report obtained by the Daily Iowan, Williams was accused of "making unwanted sexual advances toward her in D'Agata's apartment and then masturbating while D'Agata was at work."

Williams was D'Agata's personal coach and stood in his corner for a number of matches while D'Agata and his fiance decided what - if any - action they should take.

D'Agata and his fiance sued Williams for "lost educational expenses" and "mental pain," the paper reported. They also are suing Iowa.

D'Agata declined comment on the advice of his lawyer, citing the pending criminal case and civil suits. The criminal trial is set for August.

The incident was a sour end to an otherwise inspiring experience - from 0-6 at Ridgewood to letterman at Iowa.

"That stopped my whole career," D'Agata said.

Back at Gulf, D'Agata's two-hour class is a relentless regimented routine.

There's jogging, stretching, wrestling and fights beyond comprehension.

There's no safe territory as wrestlers slap, kick, drag one another and toss each other on the floor or against the walls.

One drill has a wrestler hold a sock while the opponent does anything he can to rip it away.

Injuries are as common as fist fights, both part of the growing pains of wrestling.

The key is confining the emotion within these four walls. Once class ends, it's time to make peace.

The swagger Gulf's wrestlers carried last season was one reason Jordan Holding said he transferred from Mitchell and why he is a member of the Iowa-style club.

"We wrestled against them, and you can see how they carry themselves," Holding said. "You see how intense they always are. Gulf's the only place around that wrestles like this. The style they try to teach is to be really intense.

"You just want to break your opponent."

Contact Izzy Gould at igould@sptimes.com