By BRIAN JENNINGS
The bleachers were filled in the Walt Lozoski Gymnasium. The lights turned off. The microphone turned on. The spotlight lowered to the center of the mat. The spectators and wrestlers cheered. And the stage was set.
“This is the start of the medal round.”
The Southington Blue Knights wrestling team competed with 14 different schools from the New England region at the Connecticut Challenge Wrestling Tournament on Saturday. The Knights (121.5) finished fourth behind Cumberland (151.5), Trumbull (188.5), and New Milford (206). The Knights finished in ninth place in the 2014 CT Challenge.
“I thought we wrestled pretty well today,” said Blue Knight coach Derek Dion. “A lot of kids stepped it up a little bit and wrestled tough. As a team we took fourth here, which is a good result with what is here. I was happy with the effort here today.”
Senior Zack Murillo (106) was the only Knight to take home the gold with a 16-3 decision over Berlin’s Nick Arborio. He won his previous bout against Glastonbury’s Josh Jones with a 12-0 decision to get to the finals. The Knights entered 13 wrestlers into the tournament, and six made it to the medal rounds.
“It’s been a great competition,” said Dion. “We’ve had a lot of compliments on it. We hired a company that runs the tournament for us, so it runs really smoothly. We have a lot of out-of-state teams that don’t get to see each other very often. It ends up being a great day of competition.”
Dion said that the CT Challenge is highlighted as the premiere event of the weekend in Connecticut. “We have some really highly talented kids here that come from four different states. So it’s an exciting finals.”
Earlier in the week, the Knights were edged by Farmington in a wire-to-wire match that would be decided by the last few wrestlers.
Murillo (106) started the Knights off and earned his 100th high school career bout by pinning Farmington’s Julian Mashkovich with 2:31 to go in the second period, giving his team a 6-0 lead. Ethan Greig (126) followed up by pinning Farmington’s Luke Popolizio with 3:15 to in the second period, adding to the Knight’s lead, 18-0.
Then, all of a sudden, the tables turned. After gaining six points from a couple of decisions from the 132 and 138 weight classes, the Indians started the comeback.
All it took was a takedown for Farmington’s Alan Mashkovich to pin Josh Gravel (145) with 1:47 to go in the first period, inching the Indians closer at 18-12. Farmington’s Xavier Amos tied up the match at 18 all and continued the comeback by pinning John Vecchio (152) with 4:35 to go in the third period.
Shawn Devin (160) stopped the bleeding for a moment for the Knights by pinning Farmington’s Zach Marin with 2:22 to go in the second period, putting the Knights back up 24-18. But, the onslaught continued.
Farmington’s Peter Bowser pinned Logan LaRosa (170) with 2:17 to go in the second period, tying it up again at 24 all. Farmington’s Sam Grabowski-Clark gave the Indians the lead back, 24-30, by pinning Vance Upham (182) with 2:30 to go in the second period.
And then, boom. An eruption of cheering and noise from the Farmington side enveloped the Knight wrestlers. The desperation from the eyes of Southington parents began to build, as one parent said, “They might actually lose this thing.”
A pin by Andrew Szymanski (220) on Farmington’s Steve Perfito with 3:38 to go in the second period would pull the Knights within three points at 30-33 and give them one last hope of winning the match, but a pin by Farmington’s Vince Stevens on Jimmy Starr (285) would all but close out the match for the Indians, defeating the Knights, 30-39.
Having a young team, Dion said that experience is going to come with time.
“It was disappointing,” he said. “We have a lot to learn and we have to get better. We have some young kids, so we have to get better every week. But I think we wrestled really tough down low. They have some good kids down low and our kids wrestled really well against them.”
Dion said that giving up six-point bouts is unacceptable, and that was the turning point of the match.
“Through the middle we have some inexperienced kids that just have to do better,” said Dion. “We went to our backs a little too often in there. We had matches that we were winning, but then we ended up getting caught on our backs. We’re starting 10 kids that are sophomore and freshman, so you just have to learn and be patient with them.”
Next up for the Knights is a date with the Conard Chieftains at home on Wednesday, Feb. 4.