By John Goralski
Coach Derek Dion didn’t have a lot to smile about during the regular season. A football championship delayed the start to his winter season, and his wrestlers battled through early losses as they scrambled to get into fighting shape. But that has all changed in the postseason. For the second week in a row, Southington wrestlers have charged through the postseason brackets.
The Knights entered the state open championship with six medalists from the Class LL meet. On Saturday, March 1, four of them survived to claim medals and a shot at the New England title.
“It was a great weekend. The kids all wrestled really, really well,” said Dion. “Even those kids that didn’t make it to the finals showed up and wrestled well. I was very proud of them all.”
Zach Maxwell set the standard with a pair of first minute pins and two uncontested decisions. Maxwell never trailed. He led off the scoring in all four of his matches, and he didn’t surrender a single offensive point.
His first win was a 51 second pin. His second opponent scored two escapes, but Maxwell won an easy 4-2 decision. A 40 second pin in the semifinals advanced him into his second straight championship bout where he cruised to a 7-3 win, surrendering just two escapes and a penalty point.
“He has two state open titles, and nobody else had done that for us,” said Dion. “It’s historic. After last year, he was our first ever returning state open champion, and he backed it up this year. Hopefully, he can go on next weekend and do something else that nobody has ever done.”
Maxwell wasn’t alone in the final round. Junior grappler Zach Bylykbashi rebounded from a third place finish at the Class LL meet with four straight wins. He scored a pin with 10 seconds remaining in his first round bout. He followed it up with an 18-7 win in the second round, and he went on to score two more victories to make the final round before losing to the Class LL champion in a 1-0 decision in the championship bout.
“He was awesome, but he really is that good,” said Dion. “There isn’t a more confident or hard working kid out there. He had to wrestle great just to get there [in the finals], and he did that. He took it one match at a time. I think he got the first takedown in every match during the tournament until the finals, and that was crucial. He just wrestled smart. He wrestled well, and he’s a work horse. All his hard work and dedication showed this weekend, and I’m really happy for him.”
In addition, Southington wrestlers battled to a pair of consolation finals. Junior Zach Murillo (106) rebounded from a quarterfinal loss to finish fourth overall. Alex Martin (160) lost by only two points to the eventual champion and scored two upsets on his way to a fourth place finish.
Shawn Devin (182) didn’t medal, but he battled through injuries to finish 3-2 over the weekend. Austin Abacherli didn’t win, but the freshman earned valuable experience with a pair of state open contests.
“It was a great day all around,” said Dion. “We got a couple of really nice compliments about sportsmanship and how hard our guys were working, but it’s the sportsmanship that I’m most proud about. Everyone that shows up at the state open is a great wrestler, but to do it the right way, to win and lose with grace, is really important. Our kids did that.”
Southington’s season isn’t over. With their medal round finishes Maxwell, Bylykbashi, Murillo, and Martin have each earned bids to the New England championships this weekend in Providence, RI. Dion likes his team’s chances, and Maxwell is one of the top seeds as he looks to cap his career with the program’s first New England title.
“I have very high expectations for Zach Maxwell because I know how great he can be. If he goes up there and wrestles loose, I think he can win,” said the coach. “But if the state open is a risky weekend, New Englands are even worse. Some kids have already met their goals, and they don’t show up. Other guys that didn’t reach their goals get there and rage. I expect to get really good efforts from all four of our guys, and I think that all four of them can place if they go out and wrestle well.”
Rock, Scissors, Paper
Zach Maxwell didn’t look nervous as he lounged with his teammates between bouts during the first day of the state open meet. He greeted a visitor with a wide smile when asked about his first round victory, and he erupted in a childlike giggle.
No, it wasn’t a first-minute pin that got Maxwell laughing. No, it wasn’t a hard-fought decision or a first round bye. Over the next few weeks, Southington fans will debate whether Maxwell is the best high school wrestler in program history, but there’s one thing that they can’t debate.
Maxwell is the school’s first and only rock, scissors, paper champion.
“I should get a banner in the gym,” he laughed. “I’m the state’s first champion.”
Maxwell wasn’t joking. He actually did win the title. Before officials signaled the start of the state open wrestling championship, Maxwell was beckoned to the center of the mat to face off in an impromptu contest to decide the order of the final round of the tournament.
In past years, the championship round has begun with the lightweights and has run straight through to the heavyweights. This year, officials decided to shake things up, so they invited the winners of the outstanding wrestler (OW) award from the division meets to decide the order with a game of rock, scissors, paper.
Maxwell, the Class LL OW, beat the Class L competitor and went on to edge the Class M participant. It may have been a fun way to decide the order, but Maxwell took the competition seriously. He discussed his approach with Blue Knight assistant coach Brian Zaccagnino, and the pair came up with a strategy that worked.
“If you ask somebody what color their shirt is, and then you ask, ‘Rock, Scissors, Paper,’ they will oftentimes put scissors out,” said Maxwell. “These kids already knew that trick, so I had to go with the fact that most people go with rock the first time because it’s the easiest. You don’t have to worry about fingers or anything, so I went with paper and I won three times with that.”
So the tournament finals started at the 145 pound class instead of 106, and Maxwell earned one more title to his high school resume.
“It was a lot of fun,” he said. “Southington is the first Rock, Scissors, Paper champions in the state.”
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