By John Goralski
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.
“It’s very rare that you get a kid that comes in and is that dominant at such an early age, and he was dominant all the way through,” said Dion. “It was a combination of strength or speed, but it was mainly his positioning. You just couldn’t get him out of it. There are kids that are strong in the weight rooms, but he wrestled strong. He did that with good position.”
It also came from an iron will. As a junior Lee said that he was more tentative, consciously guarding his undefeated season, but he managed to cruise into the postseason as the No. 2 seed in the 152-pound weight class. He cruised to the finals and captured his first of two division titles with a 36-second pin in the championship round. He went on to the semifinals at the state open, losing to New Fairfield wrestler Jeff McAveney in a 6-5 decision.
“I wrestled him three times in high school, and it was always at the state opens. He was the one that I lost my first match to, and it was a close match in my junior year, too,” said Lee. “It was tied with something like 40 seconds left in the third. I was on top, and I let him up. I wanted to take him down, but he was able to fight it off.”
McAveney and Lee remained as arch-rivals throughout their careers. Lee avenged the state open loss with an overtime win in the New England tournament during a campaign that carried Lee into the final bout of the regional meet. At the time, Lee was just the second Blue Knight to win a bout at the regional meet and his second place finish still remains as the best for any Southington wrestler.
Lee was just getting started. As a senior, he dispatched his regular season opponents with relative ease. He cruised through the brackets to win his second straight Class LL title, and he zeroed in on McAveney for their final match-up in the state open championship bout.
“At that point, I didn’t think that my career meant anything until I won the opens,” he said. “There were a lot of guys that fell in the finals. I wanted to be the first one. I didn’t think it meant anything unless I did.”
This time, Lee left no question. He tossed McAveney all over the mat, nearly pinning him twice to earn an 11-5 win before he leapt into the arms of his coach. The state open title was the first by any Southington wrestler, and it was a feat that was only duplicated once—three years later by Lee’s junior varsity back-up.
“Bill and I had worked together, one-on-one, quite a bit to try to develop a shot to add to his upper body assault,” said Dion. “He went out there and hit it immediately. He got him onto his back for five [points]. He did it again a few minutes later, and got him onto his back for five more and pretty much dominated from there on out. It was a fun night. It was one of the best nights that we’ve ever had as a coaching staff.”
Lee was never able to duplicate that 1999 run. He was upset in the opening round at the New England championship. He went on to Sacred Heart University, worked his way on to the varsity roster as a freshman, and battled to an early 5-5 record before ending his career with yet another concussion on the mat.
But he never strayed too far from the sport. He returned to the Southington High School gym as a practice opponent and moved into the coaching ranks where he’s served since 2002. Now, he tries to instill his sense of discipline and goal-setting to the next generation of Blue Knight wrestlers.
“It doesn’t matter what kind of wrestler they become. It matters what kind of men they become,” said Lee. “I want them to have a good head on their shoulders and know how to work hard. That’s what I got out of this sport, and that’s what I want for them.”
Perhaps that’s why the Southington Sports Hall of Fame selection committee chose Lee as the youngest member to be inaugurated the local sports hall of fame. On Thursday, Nov. 8, he will be honored in an induction ceremony at the Aqua Turf Club in Plantsville.
“I’m still excited about it because it means something,” said Lee. “I’ve seen the guys and the teams that have been inducted before me. You know the names. You know what they did. To have only two classes ahead of me, to be in the third one, is pretty incredible. I’m extremely honored.”
For tickets, contact Jim Verderame, (860) 628-7335. To comment on this story or to contact sports writer John Goralski, email him at jgoralski@southington observer.com.