Matthew Rodriguez of East Meadow wrestles Sam Szerlip of Nyack in...

Matthew Rodriguez of East Meadow wrestles Sam Szerlip of Nyack in a 160-pound Division I semifinal match at the 2024 NYSPHSAA wrestling championships on Saturday at the MVP Arena in Albany, N.Y. Credit: Newsday/Thomas A. Ferrara

As an eighth-grader, Matt Rodriguez qualified for the Nassau Division I individual wrestling tournament but lost his first match against the top seed at 138 pounds.

“Ever since that moment, I made it my goal to be a county champion,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez hadn’t placed in the tournament until his junior year, when he was the runner-up at 152 pounds. The senior achieved his goal on Feb. 11 when he defeated Long Beach’s Gregory Milone via 6-3 decision for the 160-pound title, becoming East Meadow’s first county champion in 11 years.

“It felt great bringing back that culture,” Rodriguez said. “I had a lot of alumni texting me. It just felt great to bring back the East Meadow tradition.”

Last weekend at MVP Arena in Albany, Rodriguez entered the state tournament as the second seed and made it to the finals, where he lost via technical fall to Minisink Valley’s PJ Duke, who is a three-time state champion and a Penn State commit.

Rodriguez became East Meadow’s first state finalist since 1990.

“Up until that final match, it was the best I’ve seen him wrestle,” Jets coach Vin Romanotto said. “He was pleased with what he did in that tournament and so was I as a coach. It was awesome to watch him. He’s the first state finalist I’ve ever coached, I’m so proud of him.”

Rodriguez hopes to wrestle in college and said he’s had some college coaches reach out to him since the state tournament. He finished the season with a 42-4 record and went 135-26 in his high school career.

Rodriguez used to be a three-sport athlete, playing football and baseball. He continued to play football throughout his career — the Jets’ fullback racked up 852 rushing yards and 22 touchdowns this past fall — but he stopped playing baseball after his sophomore season so he could improve as a wrestler.

“If I wanted to get better, it wasn’t going to be during the season, it was going to be in the offseason,” Rodriguez said. “Instead of playing baseball, I went to a bunch of different tournaments and I kept going to my club. I just practiced a lot and I got a lot better in that time.”

Rodriguez’ freshman brother, Nico, also wrestles at East Meadow. Nico placed sixth at 131 pounds in the county tournament this season and placed fifth at 110 pounds as an eighth-grader.

“I wanted to set goals for him to achieve,” Rodriguez said. “I have a lot of younger friends on the team and I want them to see what I’ve done and inspire them to do even better than me.”

Said Romanotto: “Matt’s been a leader, pretty much since he was in eighth grade. I made him a captain when he was a sophomore. He showed great leadership qualities, he’s one of the most respectful young men I’ve ever coached and he just always did the right thing.”

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