The Southington wrestling program rumbles forward this season with a fortified roster, an ambitious schedule and the expectation to be among the state’s best.
Five Class LL place-winners adorn the Blue Knights lineup bolstered by the growth of last year’s underclassmen. Freshmen with youth-program credentials are also vying for varsity slots, particular at the lighter weights.
“There’s a handful of teams that are really good and we hope we’re one of them,” Southington coach Derek Dion said. “We do have some depth and as balanced a lineup as I’ve had in long, long time. I look at our ‘B’ team and they can beat a lot of teams in dual meets — I’d say over half around the state. If everybody stays healthy and keeps working like they’re working, we can be a player in the state tournaments.”
The supreme leader in the Southington lineup is Paul Calo. Calo finished second in Class LL and the State Open at 160 pounds as a sophomore, losing to top-seeded Ryan DeVivo of Xavier in both finals. Calo pinned his way into the New England final, with DeVivo again waiting in the final, where Calo registered a 5-1 victory to finish 39-4 on the season.
The other returnees finishing among the top six in Class LL last year are: Jacob Cardozo (4th at 113 pounds); Shaun Wagner (4th at 132); Tagan Welch (3rd at 138); Jimmy Starr (6th at 285).
Calo is moving up to 170 pounds this year.
“He’s more focused now. He’s wresting better and working harder,” Dion said. “He’s maturing and it shows. He hasn’t yet started to tap his potential.”
Cardozo (28-14) is likely to skip a weight class to 126. Wagner (33-8) will compete at 138 and Welch (27-13) at 145. The luxury of having two top wrestlers at adjoining weight classes makes for some interesting battles in the practice room.
“Wagner’s as tough as they come,” Dion said. “He’s taken on a leadership role. He and Tagan are really going at it hard in the room. They’ve done a lot of offseason work through the youth league. They make a pretty good 1-2 punch.”
Dion rates Starr (23-10) as a top-3 contender at heavyweight with the experience and strength to gather in the gold.
Among those adding luster is Jake Munson, who will slot at 220. Munson, his football season lost to an ankle injury, competed as a freshman. He took Dion’s suggestion to return to the mat for his senior season and the results have been stirring.
“I said if he had an itch he wanted to scratch to come out and get physical,” Dion said. “He’s an absolute pitbull.”
Caleb Brick (20-12 at 106), Tim Budnik (16-7 at 145) and other veterans like Caleb Chesanow (182), Jason Brault (120) and Cole Brock (195) will be augmented by a bevy of sophomores and the arrival of freshmen enriched by the youth program.
The nature of the frequent-flyer schedule that Dion continues to put together has fostered significant in-season improvement.
Once again, the Knights will meet most of New England’s best at the Lowell (Mass.) Holiday Tournament. On Dec. 30, the Connecticut Duals hosted by Southington bring in perennial New England champion Mt. Anthony Union from Bennington, Vt., and Massachusetts contender Winchester High. Mt. Anthony was the only team to beat Southington in a dual meet last year.
The Eastern States Classic at SUNY Sullivan County that features the best from wrestling-rich New York and Pennsylvania comes up in January.
The season begins on the road Wednesday against another of the state’s best teams in Bristol Eastern. The Lancers are led by Mikey Barrett, third to DeVivo and Calo in the 160 Open bracket, and a lineup solid from top to bottom.
Coach Bryan McCarty welcomes back five Class M place-winners, led by senior Ben Stratton.
Stratton (36-6) finished second at 160, but is projected to skip a weight and compete at 182 this year.
James Rondini (29-13), Victor Torres (30-13) and Jeremy Polanco (28-13) provide strength in the lightweight slots. Zavian Arroyo leaps from 152 to 170 after a productive season on the gridiron.
Fourteen seniors are on the roster.
“The kids seem a little more focused as seniors. They’ve been working hard in the gym, doing the best they can and looking forward to a competitive season,” McCarty said. “Practice gets old quick, so we’re looking forward to outside competition. We could have [the weight classes] covered, but it’s not going to happen early. We have good depth and we’ve had good matches in our wrestle-offs.”
James Burrus (26-5 at 195) battled a shoulder injury last year that ended with the regular-season finale against Maloney. With two solid seasons under his belt, Burrus has the potential to make a deep run if he can stay healthy.
Rasec Rodriguez (132/138) didn’t compete last year, but won a junior varsity title two years ago. The Morris boys, Damian (138/145) and Dante (145/152), have two middleweight slots covered. Antonio Alfano posted a winning record as a 126-pound freshman and will step up to 138 or 145.
Cesar Flores and Luke Fuerstenberg, both in the 220 range, give the Panthers experience in the heavier weights.
Competition in the CCC South is going to be challenging. The presence of Bristol Eastern, Bristol Central, Middletown, Maloney and Berlin should make divisional matches quite interesting.
“Every Wednesday night is going to be a battle,” McCarty said.
The Panthers ranked 17th in the final state coaches poll last season.
Eric Bergeron adds another block to a foundation that’s required some rebuilding over the last few campaigns.
“I see the future and it looks bright,” he said.
The present’s not bad either with Demetre Carnot primed for his senior season. Carnot (34-6) won the Class L title at 132 last year, finished fifth at the Open and won two matches at the New Englands. He’ll start the season at 138, but plans to get back to 132 as the season progresses.
Markeese Thompson has the potential to wreak havoc at 160 after going 19-9 last year. Jocelynn Rodriguez (106) is much more than just one of the state’s top female wrestlers.
“She’s really stepped up to take on a leadership role and as an upperclassman. We’re really depending on her,” Bergeron said.
Nikolas Debaise went 17-10 at 195.
“He focused on wrestling and lifting in the offseason, so he’s actually down a weight class this year (182),” Bergeron said. “He makes others wrestle his style. He’s fun to watch.”
Freshmen competing in the middle weights is a difficult prospect and Kody Talento (145) made the most of it.
“He’s figured it out,” Bergeron said. “He’s seen Demetre and Nik succeed, wants it and has put in the work.”
Marcos Ortiz, a place-winner as a sophomore but out of action last year, should have a lock on the 126 slot.
“This is a different Marcos,” Bergeron said. “He’s matured and more focused. He looks to end his high school career on a highnote.”
Julian Davis (152) is a first-year junior with a background in martial arts. Tanner Raymond (145) comes back after a year off ready to make an impact.
If anybody can build the Rams’ program to prominence, it’s new coach and former Southington great Bill Lee.
He’s faced with starting from square one with just a handful of competitors and even fewer with experience, but is as undeterred as a coach as he was in ringing up a 122-6 career record on the mat.
The two junior captains gained experience last season. Troy LaRusso (120) won nine matches at 106 last year. Patrick O’Donnell (152) won five at 145.
They’ve been joined by first-year junior Elijah Mulligan (195) and two freshmen, Eli Moskowitz (126) and Chris Scoffone (182).
“Though we’re a small team, we’re not at a disadvantage,” said Lee, who became the first Blue Knight to win a State Open title in 1999. “I am expecting to surprise everyone with the amount of skill this team already has.
“This team is composed of dedicated, hard-working, tough athletes that are eager to learn and improve their technique. Through the hard work we’re putting in at practice, these wrestlers are determined and I expect to see them on the podium.”