By JOHN GORALSKI
When last year’s football championship dragged into mid-December, it put an early strain on the Blue Knight wrestling team. Some decided to skip wrestling altogether. Injuries plagued some others, and Southington’s preseason hopes seemed to dwindle further and further with every passing week.
Coaches emptied the benches. Freshmen were thrust into starting positions, and the losses continued to pile up. So why was Coach Derek Dion smiling at a wrestling scrimmage on the morning of this year’s football championship? Because last year’s struggles are ready to pay off this winter.
Southington’s overmatched freshmen are now battle-tested sophomores, and the influx of gridiron champions are only going to make this group deeper than they already are.
“It’s going to be an exciting year with some possibilities,” said the coach. “If we have a few of these younger kids develop, we can really compete. Our studs are really fun to watch. We have three or four kids down low that can really go against the best.”
The fun began last spring when Southington’s regular season woes turned into postseason triumph. Six Blue Knights clawed their way into the medal round at the Class LL tournament. Three grapplers went on to medal at the state open, with one becoming the first Southington wrestler to claim two state open titles. At the New England meet, it was a junior that stole the show as Zach Murillo clawed his way into the medal round.
Now, three of those six Class LL medalist have returned as co-captains, and Dion is wondering how much farther they can go this winter.
“We had some great scorers last year that we could count on in those big tournaments, and a lot of them are back,” said Dion. “We’re even hoping to add to that this year. Last year we had to start nine freshmen—much to our chagrin—but now those are nine experienced sophomores. I’m hoping that a few of them turn the corner this year. They aren’t going to be wide-eyed freshmen anymore. Now, they can get after it.”
It will all start with the tri-captain veterans. With his success at last year’s New England meet and a gruelling off-season tournament schedule, Murillo is a legitimate prospect to become Southington’s first New England champion. Zach Bylykbashi is at the top of the list in his bracket, too. Together, they form the center of a lightweight tornado that can rip through almost any dual meet lineup.
Shawn Devin turned heads last winter as a Class LL medalist, and he returns as the cornerstone of Southing-ton’s heavyweights. The three will form the foundation for Southington’s varsity lineup.
“They bring a commitment to this sport, and they show the younger kids how that commitment equates to success,” said Dion. “It’s pretty easy to see why they’re so good. Hopefully, that will resonate with our younger kids and influence them to commit as seriously to this sport.”
The rest of the lineup is sprinkled with up-and-coming talent. As a freshman last season, Austin Abacherli cruised to fourth place at last year’s Class LL championships. He will continue to bridge the gap be-tween Murillo and Bylyk-bashi so that no opponent will get a break. To make matters worse, Shawn Wagner (113) could take Abacherli’s place this season as Southington’s prized freshman, and that could form an unbeatable core of Southington’s lineup.
The rest of the lineup is in the air with strong competitions for every open spot. That leads to good practices, shifting lineups, and more depth than ever before.
“I think we’re going to be a little more competitive throughout the lineup, and we’re going to be really tough down low.
From 132 (pounds) and up, we have a two- or three-man battle at every weight class, so I don’t know who’s going to start,” said Dion. “We just have to get those middle and upperweights to battle. I know it’s a term that’s a little over-used, but if we can win half of those matches we will do fine. We just have to stay off our backs. That was our biggest problem last year.”
Once again, Dion will challenge his wrestlers with one of the toughest regular season schedules in the state. Southington’s conference offers good dual meet challenges every week, and the weekend tournaments are designed to challenge the Knights as much as any postseason bracket.
“It’s tough, man. It might be the toughest schedule that anyone has,” said Dion. “Our Saturdays will be brutal with a highly competitive tournament every weekend. Then, our league has some tough competition. I think it’s the right thing to do even though our record might not give us the highest seeds. We shouldn’t have anyone walk into [the state meet] undefeated, but I think we’ll be battle-tested enough to face anyone.”
Now comes the fun part. An influx of football champions this week will only bolster the already competitive heavyweight divisions. The practice bouts will begin to heat up as wrestlers make their last argument for the opening day roster. For his part, Dion only has to sit back and let it all work out on the practice mat.
The best is yet to come.
“I expect to compete for our league,” said Dion. “Last year was a rough year, but this year will be about development. I think that we’ll be competitive in most dual meets, but we may be a little less competitive in those bigger tournaments. But we have a couple of good young wrestlers, so who knows?”
After the way his wrestlers battled through adversity last winter, Dion said that he’s looking forward to this year’s campaign.
“For me, just watching them go at it in practice is fun,” he said. “I find myself being more of a fan than a coach at times to watch them.”
Now comes the fun part.