Penn wrestling coach Alex Tirapelle likes to stress the importance of communication to his athletes. He urges them to approach the coaching staff with their problems — athletic, academic or personal. He claims that any team must be like a family in order to truly succeed.
This approach is not surprising; for Tirapelle, wrestling and family are one and the same.
This weekend, the Palestra will play host to FloWrestling’s inaugural Who’s Number 1 Duals Tournament. The competition, formatted as a round robin, features the cream of the crop of high school wrestling. Of the eight teams slated to hit the mats on Saturday, five rank in the top 10 nationwide, including long-time powerhouses and reigning state champions.
One of these schools, however, bears particular significance for Alex Tirapelle. His alma mater, fifth-ranked Clovis High School, winners of five straight California State Championships, will fly to Philadelphia for the tournament. And Clovis coaches Steve and Adam Tirapelle — Alex’s father and brother, respectively — will make the trip as well.
Steve Tirapelle has been a fixture in West Coast wrestling for as long as most can remember. He first hit the mats in 1969 as a high school freshman before going on to earn NCAA All-American status at Humboldt State University, a Division II program. Being an athlete, however, was not the elder Tirapelle’s true calling.
“At first, I just started wrestling because my brother did it,” Steve said. “Eventually, though, I realized I loved the sport and loved coaching it even more.”
Despite his exemplary results as a high school coach — 101 state medals, 25 individual state championships and seven team state championships — Steve’s most impressive work is evident in the development of his sons.
Adam, the oldest, won two California state championships under his father’s tutelage and went on to become an NCAA national champion at Illinois. Alex followed his brother to Urbana-Champaign, earning two All-American distinctions and two Big Ten championships for the Illini.
Before their success, however, the Tirapelle brothers started out from humble beginnings. Steve recalls the first time he brought Adam to wrestling practice — it didn’t go as planned.
“He cried when we brought him in the room,” Tirapelle recalls. “He didn’t want to stay. I think he wanted to enjoy the sport but for whatever reason he cried. And we told him that if he kept crying, this was over.”
Despite the tough love, Adam and Alex maintain that their father’s philosophy largely contributed to their success.
“Wrestling-wise, we learned from him. That’s where our foundation came from,” Adam said. “He taught me that as a coach, you don’t give up on a kid. Obviously you have standards and make them work to those standards, but you never know. One day, the light might come on, as my dad says.”
“You know, I saw my brother wrestling when I was growing up and I really enjoyed watching his matches over the years,” Alex commented. “I saw him doing that and thought there’s no reason that I can’t either.
“But a lot of the credit goes to my dad. It’s pretty difficult to be a ‘father-coach.’ Because of him, we fell in love with the sport and, obviously, we’re still involved.”
In grooming his sons into athletic champions and academic achievers — both Adam and Alex were valedictorians of their graduating class — Steve learned the value of expectations.
“Setting expectations is the most important thing. Back in the old days, there were consequences for not putting in the best effort to meet those expectations,” Steve said. “It wasn’t like today when you could say you don’t like something and you can get out of it.”
While the Tirapelles’ success can be attributed to Steve’s mentorship, it is clear that their achievements also stem from a deep mutual respect.
One clear example of their strong familial bond was Adam’s return to California, where he coaches Clovis’ team alongside his dad.
“When Adam came back to help out with [Clovis], it helped me out a lot,” Steve said. “It gave me a lot more energy, a lot more bounce. I would have retired a few years ago if he hadn’t come back.”
Adam, meanwhile, was effusive with praise for his brother’s tenure as a full-time coach.
“He’s very disciplined. There’s a lot more to college wrestling than putting on the shoes and showing some moves,” Adam said. “He has business degree, so he understands the organizational side of the things. He gets that aspect and he gets the recruiting aspect.”
Alex, despite his excitement for his family’s impending arrival, understands the true purpose of their visit.
“Obviously, it’s going to be great to see them. But, I’m sure they’ll be focused,” he said. “They’re here for a reason.”
One thing’s for certain: If Steve and Adam can reach the podium on Saturday, the family reunion will be all the more enjoyable.
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