By John Goralski
Austin Sullivan was trailing by eight points when Coach Derek Dion made his way to the mat from another Blue Knigth bout. An in-state wrestler was slowly gaining dominance over Sullivan in the 183-pound match, and a red-faced coach bellowed from the sidelines.
Sullivan reversed his opponent and planted him onto his shoulders for a pin. The Southington sophomore strolled over to his coach and flashed a devilish grin.
“He came over to me, and he was really serious at first,” Dion said with a laugh. “He came in close and said, ‘That was a slow start.’ I almost lost it.”
On Saturday, Jan. 26, the Blue Knights hosted their signature tournament with mats spread out across the gym and the high school cafeteria. Teams from Long Island and Rhode Island entered the fray, and a tournament that once pitted Connecticut against their Massachusetts neighbors blossomed into a challenging regional field.
For wrestlers like Sullivan, it offered them a chance to have some fun and battle the best of the best.
“We’ll continue to try to get the highest competition involved,” said Dion. “This has kind of grown into one of the toughest individual tournaments in Connecticut for the year as far as the quality of teams. It’s our big fundraiser, but it’s also a big test against a lot of out-of-state teams and high-caliber teams that we don’t necessarily see. It’s us a good gauge against tough competition.”
For the second week in a row, the Knights competed with glaring holes in their lineup as winter illnesses and injuries continued to ravage the team. Despite a depleted lineup, Southington still managed to beat all but five of the 18 teams at the event.
New York powerhouse St. Anthony’s captured the overall title with 187 points. Glastonbury (142.5) edged Dracut, Mass. (139) for second place. New Milford (138) and Xavier (137.5) rounded out the top five, and Southington (130) finished just a few points behind them. Dion said it was a decent showing for such a small squad.
“We just had too many of our experienced kids out of the lineup,” said the coach. “We had two senior captains missing. Alex Martin ended up getting hurt in the first round, and we had to pull him out of the tournament. That’s a lot of points with just those three missing. We probably would have even had enough points to win the whole tournament.”
The Knights battled into five medal round bouts, and Zach Maxwell led the way as Southington’s only tournament champion. Maxwell pinned three opponents and earned an 8-1 decision in the 195-pound division. It took just 33 seconds to secure a victory in the championship round.
“Zach’s just that good. There are maybe five or six good kids in this state, but Zach’s one of two special ones. Those good kids can beat each other, but nobody’s beating those special kids. They’re just better,” said Dion. “There was a kid from Long Island that wasn’t there. That Trumbull kid was a ranked kid, so I was expecting a better match in the finals. Zach just walked through it. Unless you’re a special kid, he’s going to take it to you.”
The tournament served as an individual showcase for the Knights, and two others battled their way to a championship bout. Travis Daly dispatched three opponents in under a minute before running into an oversized heavyweight from Massachusetts in the finals. Nate Solomon dropped down to the 126-pound division and missed the title by a one-point decision.
“He lost a heart-breaking match in the finals to what might be the top ranked guy in the state. It came down to a couple of tough calls, so that has me optimistic,” said Dion. “That weight class was loaded, but he beat two of the best guys in the state and hung in tough with another one to come a couple of questionable calls from winning that match. He had a great day.”
Sullivan battled back from a loss in the third round with two victories and a third place finish. It took five matches, but Zach Bylykbashi battled to the consolation finals before settling for fourth place due to a five-bout daily limit.
“We had a lot of positives come out of the day. Hopefully, we’ll get some kids healthy and get rid of the sicknesses and stuff for this week,” said Dion. “We still have three tough matches coming up with a really tough tournament next weekend. Then, that CCC tournament is going to be a meat grinder.”
A share of the conference title is still a possibility. A good showing at the conference meet could set the stage for a storied postseason. Now that the CT Challenge is out of the way, Dion’s crew can turn their attention to their ultimate goals.
“From my perspective, we really have to pour it on with our cardio, our training, and our drilling over the next few weeks,” Dion said. “We’re going to try to push the kids to get them prepared for the Class LL and state open weekends.”