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

“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

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