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Fantastic Phil: Conigliaro Wins Male Athlete of the Year

Phil Congliaro is not simply the Ivy Wrestler of the Year, he is The Crimson's Male Athlete of the Year, as well.
Phil Congliaro is not simply the Ivy Wrestler of the Year, he is The Crimson's Male Athlete of the Year, as well. By Zing Gee
By Sydney Farnham, Crimson Staff Writer

It is not uncommon for dozens of Phil Conigliaro’s biggest fans to pack the Malkin Athletic Center on a Saturday during wrestling season.

The Dedham, Mass. native moved only 25 miles down the road to pursue his college wrestling career at Harvard. Having the support of his family, as well as his second family at Harvard, has allowed the graduating senior captain to consistently find success on the mat. This success has manifested in his stellar 90-26 career record in a Crimson singlet. Named the 2024 Ivy League Wrestler of the Year, he is leaving the program as one of only five Harvard wrestlers to ever do so in the team's 131-year history. Closing the door on his wrestling career, he will receive one final accolade: The Crimson’s 2024 Male Athlete of the Year.

Conigliaro began his wrestling career on a whim after receiving a flyer for his town’s rec wrestling team at the end of Pop Warner football season. As the middle of four boys who loved to recreate WWE bouts in their living room, he imagined it would be similar. Despite his disappointment that it was nothing like entertainment wrestling, Conigliaro was actually quite good, and stuck with it. Recognizing his potential, his rec coaches recommended to his parents that he join a more competitive club team.

“So my mom would actually drive me everyday afterschool to this place called Smitty’s Barn. And believe me it was kind of like a barn, it was exactly what you would imagine. They just have mats, insulation everywhere, but it was so great. There was a lot of great competition,” Conigliaro recalled.

Smitty’s Wrestling Gym in Kingston, N.H. is owned by four-time New England Champ and Penn State wrestling alum Matt Smith. While this was not an easy transition to make, Conigliaro speaks highly of his development under Smith.

“In the beginning I got beat up a lot and kind of got a little discouraged. But you know, I kept at it. And eventually, kind of got to the point where I was doing really well at tournaments and New England’s. I ended up winning it a couple times, like in middle school, and then that's when it was time to like, think about what I wanted to do for high school,” Conigliaro said about his early days on the mat.

When it came time to make a decision about high school, Conigliaro and his parents chose the Belmont Hill School, an all-boys preparatory school in Belmont, Mass. During his four years at Belmont under Head Coach Don Bradley, who has headed the program since 1989 and is a history teacher at the school, Conigliaro was a four-time Prep New England Champion and a four time All-American, as well as a 2017 National Prep Champion. Like in any sport, such accolades draw attention from many well respected college programs, but in the end he chose Harvard for the culture Coach Jay Weiss had built, as well as the added bonus of close proximity to home.

“The first time I met him on the official visit he took us into his office. And at the time, the office was actually on the fourth floor of the MAC. It was kind of a small, cramped space. But we just sat there and we talked about wrestling for a little bit and kind of what my goals were, but most of the time, it was talking about, like, what type of person you wanted to be, in college and after college, how he can help me become not only a great wrestler, but a great person. And that really drew me to the program. He was very authentic,” said Conigliaro about his first meeting with Weiss.

“On my official visit, I became friends with some of the kids on the team just from that weekend. And obviously, when I came here, we came more like a family than a team,” Conigliaro added.

Conigliaro graduated from Belmont Hill in 2018, but after tearing his ACL during his senior year decided to take a gap year to get healthy before coming to Harvard. In spite of the injury, he started his career off hot, winning a team-high 31 matches his freshman season, ranking as high as eighteenth in the nation, and qualifying for the national tournament. He was a unanimous first team All-Ivy selection and placed third at the EIWA Conference Championships. The first year of college is a difficult adjustment for anyone, especially an athlete in a new environment, but Conigliaro’s mindset allowed him early success.

“I think that there's kind of a saying that, like, the coaches always use, ‘You don't know how many chances you're going to get at this,’” he said. “So it was kind of the back of my head was like, ‘Why not now? Why not me?’”

Conigliaro’s freshman year was cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic, as the NCAA chose to cancel the national tournament. And as the Ivy League did allow any teams to compete in 2020-21, he did not put on a Crimson singlet again for nearly two years. But part of what makes Conigliaro’s Harvard career so impressive was his consistency over four seasons that were spread over such a lengthy period of time.

One of just five Harvard wrestlers to win the Ivy League Wrestler of the Year award in the team's 131-year history, the senior will be missed on the mat next year.
One of just five Harvard wrestlers to win the Ivy League Wrestler of the Year award in the team's 131-year history, the senior will be missed on the mat next year. By Zadoc I.N. Gee

During his sophomore campaign he again qualified for the NCAA Tournament in the 165 pound weight class after winning an individual conference championship. Conigliaro is one of just eighteen Crimson wrestlers to win such a championship in the program’s century-long history. He also continued to lead the team in wins, with 22, and was unanimously named a first team All-Ivy selection.

In what could be called a “down” year as a junior, he moved up to the 174 pound weight class where he won just 13 matches. Despite injury handicapping most of his season, he again qualified for a third NCAA tournament. His fondest memory on the mat also happened to occur during the 2022-23 season, when the Crimson beat Princeton in a duel meet for the first time in over 10 years. The match also happened to be Conigliaro’s first match back after his injury. It was an 8-4 win for Conigliaro.

“Princeton's a team that we're always going for. We always thought that they were a bit better and kind of fell short. Then last year we finally got over the hump and beat them and that was a really special experience to celebrate with the team,” he recounted.

His fondest memory off the mat may sound daunting to the average person, but to the wrestling community will sound all too familiar.

“Every year to finish off the preseason we run a stadium and it's probably one of the hardest things, probably the hardest thing, that physically I'll do in my life. But afterwards, just kind of sitting down on the steps with a team talking about it, and the sense of accomplishment with everybody. Everybody on the team has to do it. Everybody completes it. It's obviously different times, but kind of a shared experience that we all have and will carry forward. Like, we'll probably be talking about our stadiums forty years from now,” Conigliaro reflected.

Serving as a captain during the 2023-24 season, the veteran led the team as he always had: by example. Securing 24 wins and another trip to the NCAA tournament, he had his eyes set on a top eight finish and All-American status. Despite success early in his career, this was the goal largely driving Conigliaro in his final campaign.

“It's always been to be an All American, at the end of the season, at the NCAAs in March,” said Conigliaro about his goals in an interview in February.

Unfortunately for Conigliaro, this title remained out of reach. Tearing a ligament in his foot just two weeks before the tournament, he was unable to walk. And while his athletic trainers had him walking by match time, he was nowhere near 100 percent.

“I did not do as well as I would have liked. But it was nice to be able to step out on the mat and actually, like, for one last time and give it a go and embrace it,” the captain reflected.

This is one of the biggest lessons Conigliaro has taken from the setbacks he has experienced in wrestling. “Even when you don't think you can or you're not feeling your best, there’s still a way to get it done,” he said.

While his time at Harvard is coming to a close, he knows he will be connected to this program, this place, and the family he has created along the way long after graduation.

“I think it's actually exceeded my expectations. Some of the people in my team will be my friends, lifelong friends going into the future. And I have the program and the coaches to thank for that,” Conigliaro said.

In fact, in an age where the transfer portal has become a common pathway for Ivy League athletes looking toward a grad year, it never seriously crossed Conigliaro’s mind to leave Harvard.

“I never looked into it seriously. I probably could have gone to another school to finish up, but I thought about it very briefly and quickly shut that down. Because, you know, I love it here at Harvard. Definitely a place where I wanted to start and finish my career with my coaches and my team. I think we're just so close and I was enjoying it so much. I just didn't see a reason to go anywhere else.” said Phil. “All my friends and family, being able to come to my home matches easily. You know, at some matches I would have, you know like, dozens of people that are friends, family, old coaches, like just people throughout my entire wrestling experience were able to come and that was really special for me.”

Coniglario’s experience of seeing the outpouring of support from his vantage point on the mat is matched by the perspective on the other end. The fan base that the wrestler built is legitimate, and the pride of his former coaches and peers was often palpable at his matches. Conigliario made a major impact on his wrestling community, left the Harvard wrestling team in a better place, and etched his name in the Ivy League record books in the process.

So while there is not an award for running a stadium or navigating college sports during a pandemic, Harvard wrestling fans should be proud of all Phil Conogilaro has been able to accomplish during his career here. And as they wait for next season, they can celebrate the 2024 Male Athlete of the Year.

—Staff writer Sydney Farnham can be reached at sydney.farnham@thecrimson.com

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