By John Goralski
For almost six minutes
looked for any glimmer of light as he wrestled in the center ring at the 2013 state open finals. For two periods, the top ranked 195 pounder blocked every escape. Maxwell trailed, 4-0, midway through the match. He trailed, 4-2, with just a few seconds remaining.
Then, the impossible happened.
The Southington junior ducked underneath his opponent with three seconds remaining on the clock and drove him to the mat like a blitzing linebacker. Maxwell slid over the top of the pile, and the official signaled for a two-point takedown with one hand and drew the whistle to his mouth with the other.
With a two-point victory in the overtime period, Maxwell became just the third state open champion in Blue Knight history. He was the only one that would get another chance to win.
That might be the last time that anybody underestimated the Southington star.
“Earlier in the season that kid won by a big margin, but once Zach realized how good he was I knew that he was going to win,” said Southington wrestling coach Derek Dion. “He was the only one in the room that didn’t know how good he was.”
In fact, Maxwell might be the only one that was ever surprised at how good he was as a varsity athlete. Local fans always knew that he was ahead of the curve. As a youngster, homeruns came easy as his Little League team powered their way into the state playoffs. The chatter continued as he pounded past midget football players and twisted up heavyweights on the youth wrestling mats.
It’s rare when a 13-year-old steps into a high school practice ready to compete for a varsity spot, but it’s even more rare when that freshman is built like a blue chip football player at a division one college. Zach Maxwell was ready to go the moment he arrived at Southington High School, and nobody was surprised to see it.
“I went to the state championships for youth wrestling when he was in eighth grade just to see the kids that were coming up, and I just happened to sit next to his dad,” said Dion. “He already looked like a man physically, but his father told me that he hadn’t even lifted weights before that. I knew right there that he was going to be special. He was a man among boys.”
Because of his size, Maxwell was thrust into battle against 18-year-olds right from the start. He worked his way onto the varsity football lineup before his 14th birthday, and he was thrust onto the wrestling mat as a freshmen to square off against proven veteran heavyweights.
That might have been too much for most kids, but Maxwell just dove into the competition and took his lumps. He never made it onto the gridiron for a varsity contest, and his freshman wrestling record didn’t turn many heads, but Maxwell was already beginning to show his true potential. The differences between the young rookie and the veteran seniors was already negligible.
“Going up against juniors and seniors can psychologically break a young kid, but he stayed in there and didn’t get discouraged,” said Dion. “By the end of his freshman year, he was always right there with the best kids. He was in every match right from the start. They would build up a big lead on him, and then he’d figure them out halfway through the match and come back. If you just took his third periods, he would have probably won every match in four years.”
Still, it wasn’t until his sophomore year that Maxwell began to grab the attention of fans. In the fall, gridiron coaches shuffled him into the lineup as a lineman on both sides of the ball. Although he was a big wrestler, Maxwell was typically out-weighed by 50 or 60 pounds on the football field. Still, Maxwell was able to out-muscle the bigger players.
By his junior season, Maxwell was one of the leading tacklers on the team with 82 tackles in 11 games. As a senior, that number swelled to 86. Officials named him all-conference and all-state in both seasons. As a senior, he finished second in the state with 17 sacks.
“There wasn’t an offensive lineman in the state that was able to block him,” said Blue Knight football coach Mike Drury. “They’d come at him with two or three guys some times, and they still couldn’t stop him. He had a motor. He would just throw guys out of the way with his combination of strength and speed, along with his understanding of how the body works that comes from wrestling. He was a nightmare for teams.”
He was so dominant that Drury began to shuffle Maxwell into the offense. First, he used him as a lineman. Then, he used him as a blocking running back. Finally, Drury gave him the football and watched him go. By the end of Maxwell’s senior season, he was second on the team in rushing (452 yards) and led the team with 10.3 yards per carry.
“He lived up to his promise, but he worked hard all four years to do that,” said Drury. “Zach didn’t just show up in the fall and be a great player. He trained in the spring. He trained in the winter. He trained year round for it, but he’s a focused young man that takes everything seriously, whether it’s academics, athletics, or anything else.”
With his speed, Maxwell was a natural to be a top sprinter in the spring. As a sophomore, he reached the Class LL track championships in two events. After taking off his junior season to focus on wrestling, Maxwell returned as a senior without missing a step. He finished 14th in the 100m at the Class LL championship and qualified in the top 40 for the 200m. He ran the first leg of the 4x100m where he set the pace for a 7th place finish at the Class LL meet.
Earlier in the season, Maxwell’s relay came within a few hundredths of the program record.
“He’s almost like a freak of nature. He’s just good at everything. He has a lot of natural talent, but he works really hard, too,” said Blue Knight track coach Colleen Roarty. “When I heard that he was coming back to track, I was so excited. I knew he was a phenomenal football player and wrestler. He had run his sophomore year, so I already knew that he was a talented runner. I couldn’t wait to see what he would bring to the team.”
It didn’t take long to see his results. On the track, he out-distanced a lot of perennial short track programs. Off the track, he helped support his teammates in the gym or on the track. Maxwell wasn’t a captain, but Roarty said that he became one of the team’s true leaders. He was humble, hard working, and athletic, and his versatility was second to none.
“It stinks because you’re limited to only four events in a dual meet and at invitational meets you are limited to just three events,” Roarty said. “I think if I put him in anything, he would have done well. We were joking one day at practice when he was jumping over the high jump bar. It looked natural. He could have probably competed in anything, and it would have worked out well.”
That’s why his accomplishments are so impressive. Every one of his coaches said that Maxwell has still hasn’t reached his potential, not in track, not in football, and not even in wrestling.
“He’s as fast as he is strong. He moves like a cat, and he has a feel for positions. Really, no matter what sport he decides to do he has that ‘it’ factor,” said Dion. “He’s 100 percent athlete. He could have probably been the best baseball player that we ever had. No matter what that kid chooses to do, he’s gifted at it. He’s just so good at everything, but he’s humble and quiet about it. You’ll never hear him boasting. You’ll never see him being unsportsmanlike. He’s just good.”
Nobody can boast of more accomplishments on the high school mat. Maxwell earned a handful of gold medals from a number of elite regular season tournaments. He went on to capture a pair of Class LL titles and is the only Blue Knight to score two state open titles, but even that doesn’t tell the whole story. He finished his career as Southington’s only two-time state open champion.
Still, Dion thinks he could have been even better.
“He wrestled in four straight state tournaments, but he was battling injuries in every single one of them, including this year with a chest injury. When you look at the accomplishments he had and realize that he did them while battling injuries, that makes it even more impressive,” said Dion. “I still don’t think we’ve tapped his potential. He’s so physically gifted, and he’s almost too humble and unassuming. He still doesn’t realize how good he is, but we do.”
Fans know it after watching him dominate three sports during his high school career. His coaches know it after seeing his work ethic and determination, and college scouts realized it, too. Next year, Maxwell will continue to dominate the sports landscape as the fights for a chance to represent Army at the US Military Academy. Nobody questions that he’ll be successful.
For his outstanding athletic achievements, versatility, and leadership, Zach Maxwell is The Observer’s 2012 Male Athlete of the Year.
“I thought he deserved to be Athlete of the Year last year, too, but you don’t give it to juniors,” said Dion. “I’m a little biased, but I think he’s the clear choice. There isn’t much good that you can’t say about him. He’s done everything that anyone’s ever asked from him, and he’s never said, ‘boo.’ He’s such a strong character and a great natural athlete.”
To comment on this story or to contact sports writer John Goralski, email him at email@example.com.