CHESHIRE – The Cheshire High wrestling program hitched its wagon to a thoroughbred Friday when former Southington middleweight champion Bill Lee was named the new coach.
Lee became the first Southington wrestler to capture a State Open as a senior at 152 pounds in 1999. He won Class LL titles in 1998 and 1999. In 1998, he became the first Southington wrestler to place at the New England Tournament.
With his victory at the 1999 Open and the Most Outstanding Wrestler award in his grasp, his scholastic career ended with a 122-6 record, 87-0 in dual meets.
The kind of mettle that those achievements demanded will now be put to the test in Cheshire after Lee spent the last decade as Blue Knights assistant coach to Derek Dion.
“It’s definitely going to be a challenge,” Lee said. “I found out they don’t have a youth program anymore, so one of the big challenges is to build the program from the bottom up. I’m in the process of making contacts and I’ll put it on my shoulders until I can get some parents and volunteer coaches involved.
“Our guys will have to train hard. The more guys that win, the more that will be attracted to the program.”
Lee replaces Jake Dilts, who ran the program for four years but had to leave due to mounting personal responsibilities. Cheshire athletic director Steve Trifone said Dilts will aid in Lee’s transition.
“[Lee] was a good find for us,” Trifone said. “Last year, at the end of the season, Jake told me he may not have the time to continue. Around August, he said he wouldn’t be able to come back as head coach. Lee has a lot of energy. He’s looking to build the program back up and the kids are excited.”
Dion took over an established program in a culture conducive to wrestling success when he replaced Pete Sepko. He said the Southington program rose from mediocrity to state prominence in large part due to Lee’s proficiency and leadership.
Dion pointed to a robust youth system as a vehicle for Cheshire, which has struggled to fill out the 14-man lineup.
“It’s a difficult venture to get the kids when success isn’t built in already,” Dion said. “The first goal is to fill out their lineup.”
Dion said Lee was instrumental in his achieving that goal for Southington in 1997, Lee’s sophomore year.
“He was ripping up the youth league. He was athletically gifted and built to wrestle,” Dion said. “I built the program up around a kid like that. Someone’s got to break through the ceiling to show other kids we can do this, too. Then, success breeds more success.
“He’s got to find his own Billy Lee. If he can fill out the weight classes and find a rock like we used him for, he’ll be on his way, but it’s not going to be easy.”
Lee is committed to execute both the CHS and youth program slots.
“I want to be the one to coach the kids because it’s going to be my system in place,” he said. “I have someone in mind to help me once I get it up and running.”
Trifone said CHS teacher and former Seymour wrestler Ben Blue is on board as Lee’s assistant.
Cheshire had just one prominent wrestler last year: senior Sean Black, son of Wesleyan wrestling coach Drew Black. Sean Black went 28-6, took fourth in Class LL at 138 pounds and won four bouts at the State Open.
Only six Rams qualified for the Class LL tournament, four sophomores and a freshman among them. Some were among the seven that showed up for a preseason meeting Friday.
“It’s not a big group,” Lee said. “There are no seniors. I said there would be no quitting. Barring an injury, we’re just going to all get together and talk because it won’t be allowed. When I get the youth program running, we’ll work with the kids and show them the moves. On top of that, it well help them with theirs.”