The Westhampton Beach wrestling team had no business beating Rocky Point in a regular season dual meet in 2013. The undefeated Eagles were the top ranked team in the county, and ranked third in the state that season, with nine All-County wrestlers on the roster. The Hurricanes, by comparison, had just one.
Paul Bass, the team’s longtime head coach, and his wrestlers came into the bout with more on their minds than pulling off an upset.
One wrestler’s mother was dying of cancer, and he was not the only team member who would suffer the loss of a loved one that season. The solidarity they felt as teammates, working together in perhaps the most grueling, demanding sport there is, brought them together.
Wrestling can often easily feel like an individual sport in a team sport’s clothing—but this was a team that learned to compete for each other, on which each individual wrestler knew his job in a specific match, lessons imparted by a coach with a knack not only for creating masterful, upset-conducive lineups, but also for his ability to earn complete trust and buy-in from his team.
Bass is still almost giddy when he talks about that 31-28 upset win from six years ago. It’s one of the many highlights of a career that spanned 37 years (32 at the helm of the Hurricane varsity program) and officially came to an end this winter, when he coached his last match, the championship of the 195-pound weight class at states, where senior Liam McIntyre finished as runner-up.
Having already retired as a social studies teacher at Westhampton Beach in 2015, Bass announced at the start of the 2019 season that he was retiring from coaching, but was not keen to talk about it until the season was over. True to form, he did not want to make himself the center of attention in any way. There is no word yet on who will replace Bass as the varsity head coach at Westhampton Beach.
Bass loves to win, as any coach with a heartbeat and even a shred of honesty will admit, and his competitive streak runs deep. But the wins that matter most to him—like the Rocky Point upset—are important for reasons that go beyond personal pride.
“It wasn’t about the winning,” Bass said last month, when talking about his career and retirement. “It was about what those kids overcame. What they went through.
“The fact that they had to overcome so much adversity, and they were so big of underdogs,” he added. “It was a one-in-a-million shot. We needed to wrestle a perfect match, and we did. If we wrestle that team a hundred times, we probably lose 99 of them. Our guys just completely sold out for their teammates.”
Last month, Bass looked back on his career, reflecting on big wins, his mentors, his vast support group of dedicated parents and assistant coaches, and why he stayed in it for so long, with an unwavering level of commitment. Former colleagues and wrestlers—many of whom went on to see their sons wrestle for Bass as well—spoke of what made him so successful over the years, from his technical wrestling knowledge and compulsion to over-prepare, to the family-like atmosphere he fostered within his program, caring for wrestlers like they were his own children, but also not afraid to dish out tough love when it was needed.
The stats speak for themselves: Bass is the winningest coach in Westhampton Beach history, throughout all of its athletic programs. In his 32 years at the helm of the Hurricanes varsity program, his teams went 324-194, placing him sixth all time in Suffolk County in wins. He’s coached 246 All-League wrestlers, 50 All-County wrestlers, and eight county champions, as well as seven All-State wrestlers. He was voted Coach of the Year seven times in four different decades. Westhampton Beach has qualified at least one wrestler for the New York State Championships 12 out of the last 14 years. No program in Suffolk County, widely recognized as the most competitive section in the state, has done better.
Bass said he learned much of what he knows from three coaches he considers mentors—longtime Connetquot coach Bill Santora, former West Islip coach Tony Molino, and former longtime Hampton Bays head coach Mike Fitzgerald. The Baymen became a powerhouse during Fitzgerald’s tenure, despite being such a small school at a time when large and small schools were not separated into two divisions with separate county and state tournaments.
Bass says he was closest with Fitzgerald, because of the proximity of the schools.
“Fitz was the most dedicated, intense guy who was totally committed to kids,” Bass said of the Hall of Fame coach.
From Santora and Molino, he learned other tools that have been a big part of his success.
“Bill and Tony were extremely organized with scouting,” he said. “And they were always very composed in the corner. Something I didn’t really learn, but I always admired. But they knew there was always preparation that needed to be done.”
All three were instrumental in helping Bass mold what has become the defining characteristic of his tenure as coach—genuinely caring for his wrestlers on a human level, and using the sport to help make them better young men.
“It’s never really been about wrestling,” he said. “I love wrestling, but I love what wrestling does for young people.”
Of course he is biased, but Bass makes a compelling argument for the unique character building experience that wrestling provides, compared to other sports.
“You’re in this tight spandex thing, in the middle of the mat, with no one else to blame [a loss] on,” he said. “You go out against a kid your own age and size, and if you get your ass kicked, that’s pretty humbling. That’s a tough thing for an adolescent boy to overcome. And there’s the daily workouts. Maybe you’re getting your ass kicked in the [wrestling practice room] every day, too. Yet you still come back and still strive to make sure you overcome adversity. I just described life, didn’t I?”
Bass knows pretty well about overcoming adversity. He, of course, was a standout wrestler himself at Westhampton Beach, from which he graduated in 1978.
But the grind of the sport, and the lessons it teaches about life came in handy when, in 1991, he was diagnosed with cancer, and told he had only a slim chance of surviving.
He was 30 at the time, married only seven years to his wife, Kim Bass. Ultimately, he beat the cancer, and he and his wife went on to have three children—twin sons Conner and Zach, now 26, and son Liam, now 24. All three became standout wrestlers at Westhampton Beach and wrestled in college, as well. Raising a family and staying deeply committed to coaching a varsity sport wasn’t easy, something Bass admits, saying he is deeply indebted to his wife and staunchest supporter.
His wife said it was always worth whatever sacrifices had to be made, remembering the days when her husband and children would spend hours down in the basement of their home on their own wrestling mats, as well as days when she’d pile her three young boys in the car and bring them to wrestling practice or matches at the high school.
“They wanted to be there,” she said of her kids. “He always made it fun.”
She knew what she was getting into when she married her husband, she said, a man who never does anything halfway. She said she was willing to go along for the ride, because of the impact he’s had on kids, including their own.
“It was always about the kids,” she said. “It was never about anything else. He’s a very passionate person.
“You see what happens to these kids, and you see how important it is for them,” she continued. “It’s a good thing.”
Bass’s sons had the unique experience of being competitive wrestlers for their father. Conner said that his father’s approach to coaching did not change from the time they were small children, and he said there was never any doubt they’d take up the sport themselves.
“I didn’t really see it as much of a choice,” he said of becoming a wrestler. “And I don’t mean that in a bad way. I just didn’t know any other reality. It was the reality I grew up in, and that was what I wanted to do.”
Conner said that his father applied the same level of dedication to him and his brothers as he did to every wrestler on his teams, and spoke to the fact that many of them considered him like a second father. He said the family’s door was always open for any wrestlers who needed help, whether it was for advice or if they needed to get in an extra workout the day before weight certifications.
“He really defined what it means to give 100 percent to the team,” he said.
Former wrestlers tell similar stories about Bass and the impact he’s had on their lives. Ethan Mitchell, a 2008 graduate, has worked as an assistant coach for Bass for several years, and also spends a lot of time in the summers with Bass, working with him for Southampton Town Lifeguards.
“He’s the one coach I’ve ever had that I knew if I called him at 3 a.m. and needed him, he’d answer,” Mitchell said. “Everyone preaches about family, but he goes way above and beyond to facilitate that.”
Larry Citarelli knows first-hand the uncanny ability that Bass possesses to change a kid’s life. Citarelli wrestled for Bass as a teen at Westhampton Beach, and in the last few seasons has watched his sons, Lawrence and Luke, compete on the same team. The effect Bass had on Lawrence, in particular, he said was stark. He watched his son transform from a kid with low self-esteem who was often the target of bullies to becoming a reliable starter with a winning record on the varsity team in his senior year.
“Paul changed my son Lawrence’s life, and has propelled him and prepared him in so many ways,” he said. “Westhampton Beach will never be able to find someone to fill those shoes.”
Pete Detore is another former wrestler who credits much of the good in his life to Bass. The 2010 graduate is one of the most successful wrestlers in program history, an All-State and four-time All-County performer who went on to spend several seasons as an assistant coach for the program. Detore is currently working to earn his teaching degree, planning to become a physical education teacher, a choice he made because of Bass’s influence. Since graduating, he said he’s come to appreciate just how much of a positive effect Bass has had on the lives of children in the community, and he wanted to have that kind of impact.
“Once I started coaching, I saw it wasn’t just about winning and losing,” he said. “It’s about developing people, and character. I saw how deep it goes.”
Christian Intorcia, now 23, was a senior on the 2013 team that pulled off the Rocky Point upset. He remains close with Bass, talking to him on a regular basis despite living in Montana. Life was not easy for Intorcia while he was in high school, and while he prefers to keep the details of his personal life to himself, he admits that Bass was the single biggest influence in guiding him through that difficult time.
“He kind of took me under his wing,” Intorcia said. “He helped me so much. I love Paul. He gave all his wrestlers a sense of purpose, on and off the mat. He really has a unique ability to connect with people and make relationships across generations.”
Intorcia became one of the top wrestlers in his weight class by the time he was a senior, his sixth year on the team, but he says that, without Bass, he probably wouldn’t have wrestled at all.
“It wasn’t my favorite sport,” he said. “But I just wanted to spend more time around him. There’s something about his motivation style that I just loved.”
Bellport High School Athletic Director Bob McIntyre has been close with Bass for decades, and knows Bass as well as anyone. He started and coached, for many years, the middle school program at Eastport/South Manor, sending many wrestlers into Bass’s program. His sons, Liam and Gavin, wrestled for Bass, with Liam making it to the state finals this year.
He speaks in glowing terms of Bass, choking up when he recalls the cancer diagnosis nearly 30 years ago, and how he fought it. He admires Bass for what he says is a deep commitment to “doing everything the right way,” from following weight certification rules to holding his wrestlers accountable when they made mistakes, both on and off the mat.
He also admires the countless hours Bass puts in to make the program a success, he said, from traveling to offseason tournaments to simply making time to talk about life with current and former wrestlers who sought him out for advice. He also pointed to Bass’s attention to detail, both for teaching wrestling technique and for scouting opposing teams, knowing their strengths and weaknesses, and figuring out the best way to exploit them—even against teams that, on paper, his squad wasn’t expected to beat.
“He is a master of matchups,” McIntyre said. “I’ve been around this my entire life, and he can tell you the outcome of a match before the kids even weigh in.”
McIntyre points out that the Hurricanes seem to pull off at least one “upset” every season. He says it’s not a coincidence, or luck.
“This year, we had no business beating Islip,” he said. “By the time they figure out [what Bass is doing], it’s too late.”
As a parent of a wrestler, McIntyre can see firsthand the kind of impact Bass has had on his own sons, including Liam, one of the best wrestlers in Hurricane history. He taught Liam the moves and techniques that enabled him to become a two-time county champ, a two-time state placewinner, as well as becoming the program’s first ever All-American wrestler. But the elder McIntyre is grateful for much more than that, and he knows Bass is, too.
“He’ll be proud of Liam’s accomplishments, but it’s the relationships that matter,” he said. “What matters is that the kids know that he gave them 110 percent and he wanted them to become better men because he was in their life. And they did. They all come back and say the same things. They talk about how he was tough, and maybe they didn’t get it when they were teenagers, but as men, I think they’d all say, ‘If I could do it that way, then I’m doing the right thing.’ That’s his legacy.”