From one Hall of Famer to another: Doug Pratt follows in mentor’s steps, takes over Shawsheen wrestling program

  • By Brendan Kurie Boston Globe Correspondent, Updated December 11, 2021, 9:43 p.m.
    Doug Pratt was never a coach-in-waiting. He was never supposed to outlast his boss.

    Then tragedy struck, and took with it Mark “Dunnie” Donovan at the age of 55.

    With Pratt as his assistant for more than a quarter-century, Donovan had built a wrestling empire at Shawsheen Valley Tech, winning nearly 600 dual meets and 28 Commonwealth Athletic Conference championships over 36 seasons. Then he developed bile duct cancer, which spread to his lungs. After leading the Rams to their 13th straight CAC crown in June, Donovan died Oct. 10, just seven weeks before the first practice of the 2021-22 wrestling season.

    “Me and coach [Donovan] always said, ‘Once one goes, we both go.’” Pratt recalled. “We were a team and once the team was broken up we would move on.”

    But athletic director Al Costabile had other plans. He approached Pratt and asked if he would attempt the impossible.

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    “You can never replace coach Mark Donovan,” Costabile said, placing the emphasis on ‘never.’ “What you hope for is continuity as far as success and how the program is run and that’s a benefit for the wrestlers who participate. It’s really a situation you don’t always have.”

    Doug Pratt now oversees Shawsheen wrestling practices, including a scrap between Austin Malandain and Xavier Santiago.Nathan Klima for The Boston Globe/The Boston Globe

    Pratt understood. After 31 years as an assistant, he accepted the job.

    “To keep everything the same for the kids and not interrupt their lives too much, we are trying to bridge it,” said Pratt, noting he will revisit the arrangement with Costabile after the season.

    But Pratt is more than a quick patch. He earned induction into the Massachusetts Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2018 despite never holding a head coaching position.

    And the ironic thing is, despite playing four sports in his days competing at Shawsheen, he was never a wrestler. The closest he came was after his sophomore year, when he was abandoning hockey and considering wrestling or basketball to fill the gap between football and baseball. With Donovan in one ear and Ed Gillis, the Rams’ football and basketball coaches at the time, in the other, he chose the hardwood and went on to play football and basketball at Northern Essex.

    During offseasons in college, Pratt would drop in to train with Donovan, who had coached him as a running back and linebacker in football.

    “All of a sudden one thing led to another and he asked me if I would join him coaching,” Pratt said. “Thirty-one years later here we are.”

    While Donovan ran practices using what he called “The Bible,” Pratt would spend time one-on-one improving wrestlers’ technical skills. Working at the side of one of the state’s best, Pratt picked up his own tome’s worth of coaching lessons.

    “His best attribute is not with the best guys — he was good with them, of course —but he always got the mediocre guys and the guys down at the bottom [of the roster] to buy in and those guys won us a lot of matches,” Pratt said. “Some of those guys, I’d be like, ‘Coach, c’mon, this guy isn’t going to cut the mustard.’ And by junior and senior year they’d win us a match and coach would look at me and say, ‘I told you.’”

    But Pratt’s no carbon copy. He’ll be running practices from “The Bible” while bringing his own style.

    “He’s passionate, very passionate,” Costabile said. “He’s aggressive. He’s going to get the attention of the team. It’s a good thing. He’s a great motivator. He’s the old-school, tough-love type and they respond very well to it.”

    Shawsheen will look to continue its run of wrestling dominance in the Commonwealth Athletic Conference.Nathan Klima for The Boston Globe/The Boston Globe

    Pratt also brought in two new assistants, former Minuteman coach Brian Tildsleyand former Needham and Melrose assistant Nick Gamble, to buttress veteran staffers Mike Ganchi and Rob McIsaac.

    Pratt, a detective who has spent 19 years with the Tewksbury Police Department and works as a school resource officer at Tewksbury Memorial High, understands the challenges ahead of him better than anyone.

    “I’m excited, but he’s a tough act to follow,” Pratt said. “Anyone who takes this program over, you have a high standard to live up to. But I think the kids are ready and we’re ready to roll.”

    Leading the way are three returning CAC All-Stars: senior Lucien Tremblay (120 pounds), senior Xavier Santiago (220) and junior Troy Warwick (145).

    With only four seniors and a thin junior class — highlighted by Warwick and Ben Gooltz (152) — the majority of Shawsheen’s 32 wrestlers are freshmen and sophomores, several of whom are expected to make an early impact. Among them are freshmen Brayton Carbone (113), Sid Tildsley (132) and Dante Graziano (106), and sophomores Caleb Caceres (138), Austin Malandain (195) and John Bishop (285).

    “We’re going to be young,” Pratt cautioned. “We’ll be more of a dual meet team than a tournament team down the road.”

    But Costabile isn’t thinking cautiously. He knows he has the right man in charge to sustain a program that stood at an inflection point.

    “It’s a very successful program and we’re proud of the program coach Donovan built,” Costabile said. “Coach Pratt will do everything in his power to continue it.”