By BRIAN JENNINGS
The Blue Knights closed out the regular season with their muscles flexed. A win in their final dual meet against a solid, conference foe clinched the CCC West Division title, and a first-place finish at the first-ever CCC Tournament was just too easy.
The Knights are now ready for an easy road to the Class LL title, right? Well, not quite. With season-ending injuries to key wrestlers in the starting lineup, the Knights are limping into the state meet, and taking down Class LL powerhouses like Danbury, Fairfield Warde, and Trumbull won’t be so easy.
With a fully healthy squad, Dion said that they would have had a shot for first place. With the injuries, he said that they are shooting for anywhere between second and fourth place. Wrestlers lost for the season with injuries include Sebby Lombardo, Cole Brock, and Caleb Chesanow.
“We’ll go in there with what we got and see what we could do,” said Southington coach Derek Dion. “We do have our four captains that have been our staple all year. We’ll try to get some more guys matriculated through as replacements.”
The Knights began the week with a 44-33 victory over divisional New Britain at home on Thursday, Feb. 8. With the win, the Knights clinched the division title with a perfect 6-0 record.
The Hurricanes jumped out to a 12-point lead with a pair of pins in the first two bouts, but the Knights quickly responded. Back-to-back pins by Darius Mangiafico (120) and Jacob Cardozo (126) knotted the score. New Britain held a six-point advantage with a pin in the very new bout, but the Hurricanes wouldn’t score again until the third-to-last bout.
The Knights pulled away on the heels of pins by Josh Vitti (152), Bill Carr (170), and Paul Calo (182). Cardozo recorded the fastest pin at 1:12 into his bout. Jason Brault (138) brought the Knights to within three points with a 3-1 decision following New Britain’s final pin of the match, Tagan Welch (160) dominated his bout with a 15-0 technical fall, and Shaun Wagner defeated his opponent by default within the first minute of his bout, due to injury. The Knights forfeited the 285-pound weight class.
“I thought New Britain wrestled great,” said Dion. “They really came after us and used their athleticism. We found some things that we really have to work on. We’ve been trying to disguise it all year, but we’re hurting up top right now and are thin with injuries.”
In their first test of the postseason, the Blue Knights capped off the week by boasting four conference champions and 10 medalists in the conference tournament, held at Berlin High School on Saturday, garnering medalists in nearly every weight class. Southington beat out East Hartford (151.5) by 25 points to win the 23-team tournament with 176.5 points. Simsbury (142.5) placed third.
Welch dominated Jason Gonzalez of Manchester with a 13-0 major decision to be crowned as the conference champion of the 152-pound weight class. Andrew Kudla and Cardozo conquered the 100 and 126-pound weight classes with a pair of lopsided decisions over Noah Cintron of Berlin and Kahil Shabazz of Middletown, and Calo walked away as CCC champion of the 170-pound weight class by forfeit.
Other Southington medalists on the day included Vitti (4th, 145), Caleb Brick (5th, 106), Brault (5th, 132), Nick Mangene (5th, 138), Colby Johnson (6th, 195), and Jacob Vecchio (6th, 220).
“It’s a good tune-up tournament,” said Dion. “It’s good use to go into a two-day event set up with a similar amount of teams, wrestling, and format as the Class LL Championship. It gets your kids acclimated to that type of tournament, which is good.”
The Knights will be back on the mat this week when they travel to Trumbull High School for the Class LL Championship, which is scheduled to take place from Friday, Feb. 16 at 4 p.m. to Saturday, Feb. 17 at 9 a.m. Seeds are to be posted by the CIAC following seed meetings for Class M and S on Monday, Feb. 12 and Class LL and L on Tuesday, Feb. 13. Danbury is the defending Class LL champion.
“We need our four studs to come through and maybe four or five other kids to get their weight through the tournament,” said Dion. “I think we can have four finalists and four more place winners. I know our goal to stay in the top three is going to be a challenge now, but our kids have to get bonus points where they can and wrestle hard.”
The Knights are going to rely heavily on their four team captains, which consists of Cardozo, Wagner, Welch, and Calo. Dion said that they can possible finish with three state champions at the Class LL Championship and two or three more champions at the state open.
“You expect your leaders and studs to get the guys around them better,” said Dion. “It’s the same stuff we’re working on. We’re trying to tighten up some technique for some individual kids. We’re setting up to get deeper on our shots and be tenacious.”
Southington finished the regular season at 13-2 overall (7-1 home, 6-1 away) and 8-1 in the CCC. The Knights are currently ranked fifth in Connecticut Wrestling Online’s Top 10 high school wrestling poll.
For this week’s box scores, click here: (southingtonobserver.com/2018/02/13/weekly-scoreboard-for-the-feb-16-edition). To contact sports writer Brian Jennings, email him at BJennings@SouthingtonObserver.com.