By John Goralski
The tournament field read like a Who’s Who with top teams from Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Vermont crammed into the Southington High School gym. In most years, the powerhouse field would have been a welcomed challenge for Derek Dion and his Blue Knight wrestlers. But this is no typical year.
Scheduling problems brought on by the holidays and winter storms led to three teams withdrawing from the annual tournament. At the last minute, Dion welcomed Connecticut’s top ranked team, Danbury, and a Vermont team, Mt. Anthony, that’s one of the top in the region.
With their slow start, the Knights would have had trouble with the normal schedule. With the powerhouse additions, it became a fight for survival.
“It turned into a premier event in this state,” said Dion. “We’ve got the No. 2 team in Massachusetts, the No. 1 team in Vermont, and the No. 1 team in Connecticut. All three of those teams are going to be hanging on at the New England meet, so that’s something.”
But was Southington ready after their delayed start compounded with winter delays? That was the question for Dion and his staff.
“We were just trying to get some kids wrestling well,” said the coach. “We wanted to see them get aggressive, and we wanted to see where their wind was. It’s not where it needs to be right now.”
Southington got off to a good start with a lopsided win over NFA, 44-27, followed by a strong win over Manchester, 43-30, but then the Knights were thrust into the mix against the tournament powers.
Danbury scored four pins in the first five matches on their way to a 54-13 win, and Mt. Anthony swept through all but one Knight as they surged to a 71-5 victory.
“I saw some positives and some negatives, but we’re still so far behind,” said Dion. “Even those kids that are wrestling well are still so far behind with their skills and their wind and their reps in the room. Our first couple of matches were against Class LL teams, and we did okay. Those last two matches we took a little bit of a beating. They sort of put it on us a little bit.”
Nobody survived the day unscathed. Zach Murillo (106/113) scored three consecutive wins before falling to a former New England championship wrestler from Mt. Anthony. Zach Maxwell (195) rallied for three wins before falling in his final match in a one-point decision.
Alex Martin (152/160) was the only Southington wrestler to win his final match, but even he finished the day with a 3-1 record.
Dion expects that trend to continue as the Knights scramble to catch up after their late start.
“We’ve had a rough couple of weeks. To be honest with you, we really haven’t even started our season yet because we haven’t had any cohesive practices yet,” he said. “The whole season is going to be a tough work in progress as we try to play catch-up. I don’t know if we will, but we’re going to try.”
On the other hand, Dion saw some bright spots in his patchwork lineup. Newcomers Austin Abacherli (113/120) and John Vecchio (145) finished the day at 2-2, and Vecchio led the team with two pins. Freshmen Josh Gravel (132/138) and Nick Kelley (132/138) both scored a victory on the day.
Southington fielded six freshman during their four dual meets, and Dion was pleased with their efforts.
“They were thrown into varsity before they should actually have to be there, but they’re fighting their battles,” said the coach. “We had four or five guys battling really well. Hopefully this makes them better, and I hope that they don’t get discouraged by any of it.”
Things won’t get any easier for the Knights. They dual meets scheduled this week against Hall and Simsbury with the elite Eastern States Tournament looming on the weekend for a few select Knights. Dion isn’t ready to throw in the towel. He isn’t ready to quit, and neither are the Knights.
No matter how they finish in the early meets, Southington is just getting started. The true test will come in the postseason.
“The kids will get back to school this week, and we’ll get back in the room to play catch up,” Dion said. “This year is going to be tough to salvage, but we’re going to keep trying to get prepared and see what we can do with the guys we have.”
Southington has risen above adversity before. Will they do it again?
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