As the coach of wrestler Renaldo Rodriguez-Spencer, it didn’t take Matt Haberl long to put his 138-pounder in some pretty fast company.
A wrestler himself in the mid-1980s, Haberl’s contemporaries were local legend Jeff Prescott of Olean, who won three consecutive state titles from 1985-1987, and Lou Rosselli of Roy-Hart, a state champ in 1986 and 1988. “I haven’t seen anybody that fast and that good from our area since Lou and Jeff,” said Haberl, now in his eighth season. “He’s on another planet now.”
While on earth Rodriguez-Spencer has accomplished plenty as he enters his junior year at Cheektowaga High School. He’s 14-0 so far with six pins. In his career he’s 117-13 with 52 pins. The Nov. 15 issue of Wrestling USA Magazine has him ranked No. 7 among juniors at 132 pounds. He’s best on his feet and his speed is unmatched.
At first he put his athletic ability to use on the football field, but it quickly became obvious he lacked the size. Giving wrestling a shot would put him on the path to many “decisions.”
His biggest win to date is over Travis Berube of St. Joe’s, perhaps the top wrestler in the Monsignor Martin Association. He beat him by major decision, 22-9, taking him down 10 times. “Travis is not an easy kid, he’s no slouch. He’s a solid, solid wrestler,” Haberl said.
Come March, Rodriguez-Spencer hopes to punch his ticket to his third New York State championship. As an eighth grader he beat a senior from Clarence to qualify.
As a sophomore at states he lost in the final to the defending state champion, 13-8, despite four takedowns. And while those experiences were a real wake-up call, so was the reality of missing his freshman season because he was academically ineligible.
Not making the grade was a turning point in his career. “I had too much riding on my success, and I love the sport, I just couldn’t give it up,” Rodriguez-Spencer said. “I used that setback as a positive. I had positive people around me telling I had to get my grades higher and move forward.”
Rodriguez-Spencer said he used the support of family and teachers, who offered to stay after school and tutor him. He now studies for quizzes, tests, learns with flash cards and does homework.
“A lot of kids when they’re ineligible they quit and fall off the face of the earth,” said Haberl. “He turned that around and said he had to change, and he did.”
Rodriguez-Spencer also became more of a student of his sport. A top three finish in a national championship in Akron, Ohio, earned him a two-week summer training stint at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.
“It was amazing walking around seeing the Hall of Fame, wrestling with guys who wrestled on the junior world teams and Pan-American Games, and meeting new people, it was just a great time,” he said. “I did pretty good, I like to show off my style and technique when I get around better people. I felt I belonged with the best.”
Summer school didn’t end there. He also turned to UB 157-pounder Clay Reeb, a 2009 Cheektowaga graduate, and the winningest wrestler in school history with 181. They worked together twice a week for a couple of months.
“He had a couple nifty moves to get out of funky positions, but he mostly helped me on top,” said Rodriguez-Spencer. “On my takedowns, I don’t want to give my opponent time to equal what I do, I don’t want his offense to be better than my defense. You don’t give him time to figure out what he can do.”
Rodriguez-Spencer isn’t sure where his future will take him, he just know he wants wrestling to be a part of it. He was inspired watching Jordan Burroughs win gold at 163 pounds at this summer’s Olympic Games. That prompted a conversation with Haberl, who has always encouraged his wrestlers to have big goals.
“We were talking over the summer about going to states, and possibly eight years from now, the Olympics.
“He stopped me in my tracks and said, ‘four years.’ He’s one of those special kids, who knows?”