Steve Vlcek is 34 years into his varsity coaching career at Manchester and might have his best team yet.
The season still has a long way to go, of course, but Vlcek is confident that what is being built right now in the Flying Dutchmen wrestling room is something special.
“I always call this our preseason,” he said. “We’ll have four tournaments before the new year. That’s 26 or 27 matches per kid. That way, we can figure out where we are at, what we need to work on more. Then we can start tweaking stuff a little bit.
“It’s been a really great start. I see a lot of improvement in our team.”
Vlcek, who has won more than 700 meets in his career, and Manchester have been on the cusp before. The Flying Dutchmen have won 18 straight District championships and own a dozen Regional titles. Manchester was the Division 4 runner-up in 2008 and has reached the Semifinals multiple times.
The last two years, they’ve qualified for MHSAA Team Finals weekend but have lost the first day in Quarterfinals.
“It’s been a little frustrating, but you have to keep plugging away,” Vlcek said. “We’re trying. We have a good shot the next couple of years.”
Vlcek was a football guy at Manchester, but when the school didn’t field football in 1981, he turned to wrestling.
“We didn’t have football my freshman year, and I was driving my mom crazy,” Vlcek said. “I took up wrestling.”
During his four years with the varsity, Manchester went through three coaches. It was his final coach, Dan Jordan, who invited Vleck back a couple of years later to work with some of the wrestlers on the team.
“He called me up and asked if in my free time I would come and work with a couple kids,” Vlcek said. “Two years later, I was the junior high coach, and two years after that he resigned, recommended me for the job and I got it. He did a really good job of bringing up the program.”
Vleck never thought he would be a coach, but it became his passion.
“Once I started working with the kids, I really enjoyed it,” he said. “I wasn’t sure how much I would like it as a 19-year-old, or 20-year-old kid, but I did.”
Some of his early Manchester teams struggled with numbers. They’d often have seven or eight wrestlers win matches but lose in a dual-meet format because of the forfeits. That started to change during the mid-2000s.
“We started getting good classes together, and that made a considerable difference,” he said.
He picked things up from rival coaches, some of whom he has become friends with over the years.
“You pick up little things from each coach you coach against,” he said.
He credits a strong youth program at Manchester with developing wrestlers at a young age.
“We have a very involved youth program,” he said. “They’ve brought a good product to me. I try to stay away from it, let them develop it. We are very lucky to have it.”
He also credits a slew of assistant coaches, such as Mike Bunn.
“I can name 20 guys who have come into the room and make the program better every day,” he said. “I have my son (Brock) coaching with me now, and I really enjoy that.”
The Flying Dutchmen have 10 juniors on this year’s squad, including Sammy Stewart, who won an Individual Finals title last year at 113 pounds, and Blake Sloan, who was runner-up at 138.
Stewart missed a good part of the 2022 season while recovering from a hand injury.
“He had a really bad accident in shop class,” Vlcek said. “He almost cut his hand off. He came back in mid-January. He definitely had to overcome some obstacles. He avenged the loss he had (during the regular season) in the state finals.”
Sloan is another of the super sophomores. He’s coming off a record-setting football season in which he rushed for more than 2,100 yards.
“I can’t ask more out of those guys,” Vlcek said. “They put their time in and help their teammates out. We have seven or eight kids who have been state qualifiers. We still have some work to do, but there is improvement.”
Manchester is 10-2 in dual meets to start this season, giving Vlcek 711 career victories. The Flying Dutchmen have played a good schedule and have been ranked anywhere from No. 2 to No. 5 in early-season team rankings.
“I like to be challenged,” Vlcek said. “You don’t get better without wrestling the best.”
Doug Donnelly has served as a sports and news reporter and city editor over 25 years, writing for the Daily Chief-Union in Upper Sandusky, Ohio from 1992-1995, the Monroe Evening News from 1995-2012 and the Adrian Daily Telegram since 2013. He's also written a book on high school basketball in Monroe County and compiles record books for various schools in southeast Michigan. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Jackson, Washtenaw, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Monroe counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Sammy Stewart’s hand is raised by the official in victory after the Manchester standout won his championship match at the Individual Finals in March. (Middle) Teammate Blake Sloan, right, considers his next move during his championship match last season. (Below) Coach Steve Vlcek embraces Stewart after the victory. (Click for more from High School Sports Scene.)
Dominic D’Ambrosio’s answer when asked at 5 years old if he wanted to start wrestling was probably a clue for what was to come.
“I remember when my dad asked me if I wanted to wrestle,” D’Ambrosio said. “I think I just said, ‘Sure.’”
It’s not that D’Ambrosio would be nonchalant or aloof when it came to wrestling. He’s quite the opposite, actually. The work he’s put in has him unbeaten at 43-0 as a senior, ranked among the top four at 138 pounds in Division 3, and threatening to become the Spartans’ first Individual Finals champion.
The clue was that D’Ambrosio was going to be calm and cool on the mat, and have a grounded view of the sport off it, which has also helped him reach those heights.
“When I was younger, I got an award for being a cool cucumber – the Cool as a Cucumber award,” he said. “When I lose, I just look at it as I can get better from it. At the end of the day, it’s just a game. It’s serious, the work you put into it, but it’s not so serious. If you lose, you just want to get better. I just like to get the work done.”
To be fair, D’Ambrosio doesn’t do much losing.
He’s dropped just nine matches during his four-year career, compared to 159 wins, and a third of those losses came against Dundee four-time Finals champion Braeden Davis, who is now unbeaten and ranked No. 5 in the country at 125 pounds as a true freshman at Penn State.
D’Ambrosio was 14-0 as a freshman when COVID-19 ended the Spartans’ 2020-21 season short of the postseason. He placed third at the Finals as a sophomore, and fifth as a junior.
He has his eyes on the ultimate prize this year, and for a moment he allowed the thought to get him out of his even-keeled nature. But even that doesn’t last long.
“It would be pretty special,” he said. “I’ve been working hard for it. But, either way, I’m just going to go and leave it all out there.”
D’Ambrosio is the son of Imlay City coach Tony D’Ambrosio, which in some cases could create more pressure. But not this one. And a lot of that could be credited to Tony.
“We always tried to keep the pressure low and just have fun,” said Tony D’Ambrosio, who is in his 10th year at the helm in Imlay City. “We just focus on getting better. He’s always just wrestled. It’s just how he is. Dominic doesn’t even look at the brackets. He doesn’t find out who he’s wrestling until he shakes hands.”
What happens after they shake hands isn’t what one would expect from someone who could win that same Cool as a Cucumber award every year.
D’Ambrosio’s matches typically don’t last long. Of his 159 wins, 105 have come by pin, including all three of his wins at the 2023 Individual Finals. As a junior, he set the school pin record at 41. This season, 32 of his 43 wins have been by pinfall.
Just four of his matches have gone beyond the first period this season, and only two of those have gone the distance.
“This year, he’s really been turning it all on,” Tony D’Ambrosio said. “He didn’t start pinning a lot until later on into middle school and high school. It’s just basic stuff, not anything fancy. He’s a nice kid, but when he’s on the mat, he’s going to turn you over.”
Dominic isn’t a thrower, and his pins aren’t the result of catching an opponent in anything fluky. He’s just meticulous, and able to take advantage of any opening he’s given.
“I’m (working on a half Nelson) 100 times, 200 times during the week, so I’ll be able to hit it during the weekend,” he said. “If I got somebody’s head, nobody is getting out of it. I can just flow really well into a pinning sequence.”
As he pins his way through the season, D’Ambrosio is racking up awards. He’s been named Most Valuable Wrestler at four tournaments bouncing between 138 and 144, and at one point found himself ranked No. 1 by Michigan Grappler at 138.
As you would expect, he hasn’t allowed that to get to his head, and as his father puts it, “the only ranking that matters is the podium.”
With District tournaments this week, D’Ambrosio now can focus 100 percent of his efforts on getting to the top of that podium. But don’t expect the pressure to mount in his house or on the mat.
“It would be special,” Tony D’Ambrosio said. “But, again, as long as he goes out there and just does what he does, and does his best – it’s kind of like the NCAAs, you have to have a good weekend. It doesn’t dictate who you are. It would be awesome, and it’s a great goal to have. It would be a great goal to accomplish and be the first (from Imlay City). But wherever he ends up, I’m going to be proud of what he’s done.”
Paul Costanzo served as a sportswriter at The Port Huron Times Herald from 2006-15, including three years as lead sportswriter, and prior to that as sports editor at the Hillsdale Daily News from 2005-06. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Imlay City’s Dominic D’Ambrosio, right, wrestles to a fifth-place finish at 132 pounds in Division 3 last season at Ford Field. (Middle) D’Ambrosio, right, takes to the mat during his early years in the sport. (Below) D’Ambrosio, right, works to pin an opponent. (Top photo by High School Sports Scene; other photos courtesy of the D’Ambrosio family.)