Open season; Bill Lee was the first to capture the state crown

By John Goralski

Sports Writer

A video camera captured Bill Lee in a close-up as he walked off the championship mat at the 1999 state open, and its grainy image captured the key to the Southington grappler’s success.

Lee had just dismantled his opponent in the final bout to capture his second consecutive division title. He scored his first points in the opening moments and spent the next few minutes chasing his opponent around the mat like a kitten playing with a ball of yarn.

When the officials signaled the end, Lee earned a 17-2 win and another state title, but he can be seen on the video shaking his head in obvious frustration.

“I just couldn’t finish him,” he said with a hint of disappointment more than one decade later. “I never let a guy off his back, but I just couldn’t pin that kid. It was weird. It took no effort to get him to his back, but as soon as his shoulders hit he was a wild man.”

Lee still remembers the match vividly. He can recall every play, every move, and every point as if it was unfolding in front of him. He never trailed, and his opponent never threatened. It capped an easy run to his second straight division title, but he still seems haunted about missing the pin. Perhaps it’s because few wrestlers ever managed to avoid one.

“For my money he was the best kid that I’ve ever seen wrestle,” said Blue Knight wrestling coach Derek Dion. “He was just about as strong and fast a kid as I’ve ever had. Nobody with his size could hang with his strength or his speed. There were kids that went on to have better college careers, but we’ll never really know how his college career would have panned out [if he didn’t get injured]. When you look at high school wrestlers, he’s one of the best that I’ve ever seen.”

As the last century came to a close Lee exploded onto the scene but it was a long journey just to step onto the high school mat. Lee was a proven soccer player at a private school, but he longed to wrestle. His father was Southington’s first captain in 1974 and 75.

Lee switched to homeschooling as a freshman to try to qualify for the high school team. When that didn’t work because of new rules changes, Lee convinced his parents to enroll him in the public schools. It was his first win as a high school wrestler.

“I knew when he came in as a sophomore that he was the type of kid that you could build a program around, and we did that,” said Dion. “We spent a lot of time with him individually, and it ended up being a good thing. You make one kid better, and it seems to make everyone around them better. They go on to make everyone else around them better, and it made us a pretty successful program for a while.”

Lee was an instant hit as a sophomore, and finished his career without a single regular season loss. He amassed an incredible 122-6 record that still stands as No. 17 on the all-time list of state wrestlers. He won 67 by pin and 15 by forfeit. Most of his matches were over in seconds.

“He wasn’t really one to make mistakes,” said Dion. “It was difficult to get good matches for him because he was so dominant. Everyone just tried to get away from him. Sometimes, I would try to weigh him in at a weight class above and wrestle him up to the weight class above that just to try to get him into a match that could get him ready for a state tournament. He seemed to pin or tech fall just about everyone he wrestled.”

Lee credits his preparation and aggressive attack. He started his day with three-mile runs before school. He finished his practices with five-mile runs or long trips on the bike. Since most of his matches finished so quickly, his drive had to come from within.

“You have to be disciplined, but that’s one of the things that’s great about wrestling,” he said. “When everybody else is chowing down on garbage, you have to eat that salad. You might really want to eat that cookie, but you can’t have it. It takes discipline to go to bed at 8:00 at night when your friends are going out, but that’s because you have to run at five in the morning. It’s all about discipline.”

It paid off. His first varsity loss came in the Class LL quarterfinals in his sophomore year. His second loss came at the state open in a 2-1 decision against an opponent that went on to the finals of the New England championships. His third loss came as a result of an injury default that ended his state open run.

Over his three year varsity career Lee’s only losses came in postseason bouts even though he found himself battling against bigger wrestlers, state champions, and New England powers. Two losses were concussion-related. One was a disqualification for an illegal slam in a bout that he was dominating. One came against the eventual state open champion. Another came against a New England finalist. It was only his last one—the sixth one—that was avoidable.

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