By John Goralski
Zach Maxwell was already leading, 4-1, when officials restarted his championship match after a short conference, and the Southington senior went right back to work. He circled his opponent like a cat measuring his prey. Slowly, surely, Maxwell crept around the mat, looking for another chance to attack.
When he saw his opening, Maxwell struck in a blur.
The Blue Knight senior dropped underneath, pulled his opponent on top of him, and used the momentum to roll back on top. Officials signaled two more points, and Maxwell released his victim one more time…
To most wrestlers, a Class LL finals bout is a highly contested battle between evenly matched champions. To Maxwell, it seemed more like a game. With 13 seconds left in the contest and a 14-2 lead, Maxwell finally put his opponent to rest. The pin capped a perfect day and resulted in Maxwell’s second division title in as many years.
“I’ve had people from all walks of life coming up to me to tell me that Maxwell looks great, but he’s even better than they think he is,” said Blue Knight wrestling coach Derek Dion. “He has every single move in his arsenal. He does everything right, and he does everything well. If we can get him to do all that in one match, he’ll just dominate. This was a big step in the right direction today. I hope that it will continue, and he’ll get even more aggressive, loose, and let things go. When he gets in a scramble, he’s tough to beat.”
On Saturday, Feb. 22, Maxwell led a small army of Blue Knights in a charge to the medal rounds at the Class LL tournament in Trumbull. After a season of delays, cancellations, injuries, and depleted rosters, Southington wrestlers struck back with a nearly perfect day.
Six Knights survived the first day of competition, and all six reached the medal round. Three reached the finals, and one secured a state title. When pairings are announced for this year’s state open, Southington will have six wrestlers on the list. The Knights saved their best for last.
Shawn Devin (182) finished with a 4-3 record to secure a sixth place medal. Austin Abacherli (113) battled to a fourth place finish. Zach Bylybashi (120) placed third with a win in the consolation finals. Zack Murillo (106), Alex Martin (195), and Maxwell (195) reach the championship round, and Maxwell came away with a perfect 5-0 record to secure the award for the tournament’s outstanding wrestler.
“This doesn’t erase a tough season, but this is where our good guys should be,” said Dion. “They’re doing great, and I think that all six guys wrestled great all weekend. A couple of the guys like Zach Maxwell got better and better and better as the day went on.”
For Maxwell (26-1), another Class LL title isn’t the ultimate goal. With the victory, he joins a small list of five Southington wrestlers to score multiple divisional titles, but next week he has a chance to become the first Blue Knight to secure two state open championships. If he’s successful, he’ll take a crack at becoming the school’s first New England champ.
“It’s awesome. I feel like I’m following in the footsteps of all those Southington greats that have won two or three Class LL championships,” Maxwell said. “[Assistant coach Bill Lee and I] have both won two Class LL championships and a state open championship, so it’s awesome. I’m in good company… I’m looking forward to next weekend.”
Murillo didn’t fare as well in the finals, but the junior lightweight cruised into his championship bout with two pins and a 6-2 decision. He ended up losing a hard-fought match in the championship round to a larger opponent, but Murillo (30-4) expects to get another shot at the title at the state open.
“This was a good tournament, and it really helped me,” Murrillo said. “I think I got a good look at the guy that I’m supposed to face in the finals of the open. I know that I need to work on a lot of stuff, but I think I can pull it through the next time.”
“I know that Murillo had a gold medal in his sights. He’s not happy with that, but he always makes me proud because he wrestles so hard and does everything right,” said Dion. “He just ran into a guy that’s super tough. He almost had it in the end.”
Alex Martin (25-8) matched Murillo step for step in the march to the championship round. He also claimed a pair of pins and a 6-2 decision before losing to the top seed in the final round. Martin had battled almost all season as an undersized 182 pounder, but the senior said that he finally feels like he’s at the right weight in the 160 pound brackets.
“It was nice to see him get out here and get to the finals because it shows that he’s one of the top guys here,” said Dion. “He beat the quarterfinalist and the semifinalist earlier in the season, but that’s hard to do twice. He went out there and wrestled tough today, but he’s been wrestling hard all year.”
Now, the Knights will take on medalists from all four division meets for a chance at a state open title or a coveted berth to the New England championships, March 7-8, at the Providence Career and Technical Center in Providence, RI.
Maxwell enters the competition as the top seed. Murrillo and Martin are both seeded No. 6, but don’t count out Bylykbashi (No. 12), Abacherli (No. 16), and Devin (No. 21). Friday’s bouts are scheduled to begin at 4:15 p.m. at the Floyd Little Athletic Center at Hillhouse High School in New Haven. Saturday’s bouts will begin at 9 a.m. with the championship quarterfinal round and the second round consolation matches.
“I’m going to go in there and try to pick off some top seeds,” said Martin. “I might be going in as an underdog, but that’s what I like.”
To comment on this story or to contact sports writer John Goralski, email him at jgoralski@ southingtonobserver.com.