By BRIAN JENNINGS
The wrestling pit in the high school has been packed to capacity throughout the first weeks of practices. There have been close, hard-fought matches up and down the lineup, and no weight class is uncontested…except one.
As just the second New England champion in program history, junior Paul Calo might be the only one assured of a spot in the lineup. But even he has competition in the pit.
“The live wrestling in practice has been super competitive,” said Southington coach Derek Dion. “They say iron sharpens iron, and we have a lot of really good kids battling pretty hard. That’s the best way to get better…to have top competition in the room.”
Last winter was surely an exciting season for Southington wrestling, but this season is advertising itself to be even better.
“We have a fun bunch of kids and a bunch of hard workers,” said Dion. “It’s really a pleasant group to be around. It’s exciting too because they’re working so hard. So far, it’s been the best first week in a long time.”
The Blue Knights finished last year’s regular season at 15-1 overall (9-1 home, 6-0 away), going 8-0 in the CCC and 6-0 in CCC West with a division title. In the postseason, they placed fourth at the Class LL championship with 14 wrestlers (8 medalists) and state open with eight wrestlers (3 medalists), advancing three wrestlers to the New England championship.
The Knights lost nine wrestlers to graduation after last season, including two New England qualifiers and one Class LL medalist.
“It was a great year last year,” said Dion. “We took huge steps in the right direction. We’ve been building over the last few years, and I’m hoping that this year is another step towards that.”
Experience is the biggest component the Knights are carrying over from last season. They’re bringing back a lot of wrestlers that competed in big weekend and postseason tournaments.
“The first runaround is always the hardest one,” said Dion. “A lot of kids have had experience going through the season and getting through big tournaments in the beginning of the season.”
The Knights are welcoming the most wrestlers to this year’s team that they’ve had in the past 10 years. With almost 50 wrestlers on the roster, most of them have some type of experience on the mats, even a lot of the freshmen. Dion said that the team is going to have probably nine or 10 contested weight classes.
“We usually have 40 to 45 kids or so that sign up,” said Dion. “Typically, you’ll have 30 that actually show up. This year, most of the kids have shown up and are excited to be there.”
The bulk of the popular draw to this year’s team can be contributed to the fact that most wrestlers are returning from last year’s team. However, Dion said that the addition of Rob Levesque to this year’s coaching staff, who also is an assistant coach on Southington’s football team.
“He’s been really helpful about working on those kids that are good athletes from the football team,” said Dion. “It’s a good crossover.”
Looking at the lineup, Dion said that he sees 13 or 14 wrestlers that can place at the state meet. He also thinks that they can get place winners out of about half of those wrestlers at the state open. But the team’s strength for the upcoming season will be its depth and consistency throughout the lineup.
“If things work out the way we’re setting our expectations, we should have an experienced wrestler in every weight class with a chance to win in every weight class in tournament matches,” said Dion. “It looks like it’s hopefully the most balanced lineup that I’ve had.”
Although they have a lot of experience and depth with five Class LL place winners returning, there are still nine wrestlers that haven’t reached that level yet. Dion went on to jokingly say that he won’t be happy until he has 14 Class LL champions, but he also said that the team is not good enough to compete at the state level right now. From here, it’s just a matter of improving every day.
Seniors returning to the team for the upcoming season include Cole Brock, Timothy Budnik, Ethan Greig, James Starr, Shaun Wagner, and Tagan Welch. Wagner, Welch, and Starr medaled at the state meet and wrestled at the state open. Welch placed fourth in the 138-pound weight class at the state meet.
Juniors returning include Jason Brault, Calo, Jacob Cardozo, Caleb Chesanow, Derek Guida, Matthew Jacobson, Colby Johnson, Devin Lord, Nicholas, Mangene, Samuel McCarty, and Luca Veneziano. Calo and Cardozo each medaled at the state meet, as Cardozo took fourth in the 113-pound weight class.
Dion said that everyone, even Calo, has his work cut out if they are going to build on last year’s results.
“Everyone gets better every year. You have to get better,” said Dion. “Pauly did his offseason work and looked fantastic the first week of practice.”
In order to remain in top shape as the best wrestler in the Northeast in his weight class, Dion said that Calo has to continue to improve on his weaknesses and get him into the best competition they can find to peak him out for the state meet.
You would think that a New England champion would come into the season, rest on their laurels, and say that they have arrived. But with Calo, it’s the complete opposite.
“He’s working harder now than he worked last year,” said Dion. “He sees that he can make an improvement and set his goals even higher. It seems like he doubled his focus in everything, and it’s a good sign to see that and for the other kids to see that.”
Dion said that he’s hoping Calo’s success at the New England championship will only lead to more New England champions, as Southington has now produced their first two a pair of years apart.
“Success does lead to success, but once they see that kids they know and train with everyday can be successful at that level, it shows that they can be also,” said Dion. “We’re setting our expectations very high, and we’re hoping to meet those goals.”
Sophomores that will look to contribute to the varsity roster include Caleb Brick, William Carr, Anthony DiPietro-Bean, Ethan Judd, Jacob Vecchio, and Joshua Vitti.
Calo, Cardozo, Wagner, and Welch have been named as team captains for the upcoming season. Dion is entering his 26th year as head coach of the varsity wrestling program.
After a new realignment of the CCC, Southington is now in the West Division with Conard, Farmington, Hall, New Britain, Newington, and Simsbury.
To comment on this story or to contact sports writer Brian Jennings, email him at email@example.com.