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04/02/2024 01:32 PM

Hand Wrestling Grew and Gained as a Group on the Mats

Senior captain Jack Wiesbrock served an instrumental role as a leader for a youthful Hand wrestling team that garnered a plethora of experience this winter. Photo by Wesley Bunnell/The Source
Freshman Andrew King was one of several newcomers to the Hand wrestling team that took a shine to the mats to help build up the Tigers’ prospects for future championships. Photo by Kenneth Marangell/The Source

For the Hand wrestling team, there were points in the season where it seemed like match rosters were filled out with patchwork. Yet through persistence and having passion drawn from the love of the sport, school, and squad mate, each member helped stitch together a strong foundation for a bright future.

The Tigers finished 10th out of 17 squads with 47 points at the SCC Championships on Feb. 10 at East Haven High School. Hand then followed that up by placing 17th with 62 tallies as a team at the Class M State Championship on Feb. 16-17 at Wilton High School.

Head Coach Michael Docker was quick to credit the middle school system in town towards hitting one of their preseason targets. He explained that the program has been somewhat hard struck to grow numbers post-COVID, but several coaches have stepped up to the challenge.

“One goal this season was filling our lineup. Since the pandemic, Hand has struggled to fill a lineup due to feeder programs stopping and those younger wrestlers moving on to other sports that were allowed to practice and compete,” said Docker. “Polson wrestling has been up and running now for a few successful seasons under Coach Mike Spadaro and has produced a fantastic freshman class for us this season. Youth wrestling is also up and running, thanks to Coach John Rogers, and is introducing wrestling to Madison's youth. Both programs will help fill our ranks in the coming seasons.”

Speaking more to the progress made with this year’s actual squad, Hand lacked experience and depth in certain weight classifications, but the boys were determined to grab some mat time to gain grappling knowledge and muscle memory. They additionally aimed to grow the female component of the roster.

“The other goal was coaching an inexperienced team of newly recruited wrestlers. You could call this season a building year,” Docker said. “Out of the 14 weight classes, we had only six wrestlers with any experience. The rest of the team is brand new to the sport. Coaching thus became a challenge, and I was able to rely heavily on my staff to get that job done. Assistants Ashton Gyenizs, Eddie Carroll, Don Cramer, and Dylan Brochard all stepped up and worked with the team. A third goal was to start attending girls’ only events with our female wrestlers. These events gave them the opportunity to compete against other female wrestlers and help them to get seeding points for the all-girls’ state tournament.”

Yet through those growing pains with some young wrestlers, they were soothed by several gaining initial milestone moments of triumph along with valuable teachable instances. They additionally saw sound success in earning postseason recognition via high placements in their respective brackets.

“My young team persevered and clawed out a successful year of individual accomplishments. Many scored first ever victories with [sophomore] Beau Newton, [freshmen] Wyatt Roberts, Eve Lavigne, Andrew King, and David Elder,” said Docker. “The team also learned some hard lessons like commitment and how going all in really matters. Freshmen King and Lavigne both showed all-in commitment and had great success in their respective postseason tournaments winning matches.”

Three wrestlers placed in the Class M divisional tournament with senior Larkin Pantano (5th), junior Kenny Carter (5th), and King (6th). Additionally, Pantano placed first at the Portland Highlander Tournament and third at SCCs, and Carter finished fourth at the Greater Hartford Open. Lavigne was fourth at the Queen of the Mat Tournament.

The Tigers had to additionally fight through some forfeitures in the early phases of the campaign. Still, the group’s overall dedication to the craft year-round really shined through on the state’s biggest stage.

“The team had some major setbacks at the start of our season with wrestlers getting injured and/or dropping out. These setbacks caused us to have missing weights in our lineup, thus we had to forfeit multiple weights every match,” said Docker. “Wrestling is a combat sport and is highly competitive. Wrestlers need to attend offseason clinics, clubs, and camps in order to be competitive during the season. We had many attend clubs last summer and fall, and this offseason work showed in our postseason success. Larkin and Andrew both attended clubs last year and both placed in Class M.”

Team leaders in terms of final solo records for the winter included Carter going 30-19, Pantano (26-10; 1st at Portland Highlander Tourney), King (19-13), senior Jack Wiesbrock (25-14), Roberts (11-11), freshman Diego Portley (10-14), junior Trevor Cash (6-6), sophomore Paul Fumex (15-18), Lavigne (11-24), and sophomore Noah Mylott (6-12).

Team award recipients were Carter (Team MVP), senior Braeden Simmons (Iron Will Tiger Award), Fumex (Tiger Pride), Wiesbrock (Tiger Claw), King (Dan Gable Award), Lavigne (Tricia Saunders), Pantano (Tiger Stripes), Cash (Most Improved Tiger), and Newton (JV All-Star).

Next season, Hand will have a number of returning wrestlers that had success this year. Juniors Carter and Cash will be leading the team to many hopeful victories. Sophomores Fumex, Noah Mylott, and Newton, Docker noted, “will be putting in the offseason work and should all be very competitive.” Freshmen Roberts, Lavigne, King, Portley, freshmen Grady Van Hein, and David Elder, “all look to be very solid next season as well,” per Docker.

“Ultimately, our success will depend on recruitment to fill in missing weights and to deepen our roster,” said Docker. “Our core is strong now, and with all these amazing wrestlers returning, we will be in great shape next year.”

In his closing comments on the campaign, Docker certainly did not pass aside the chance to praise his class of captains this winter with Simmons, Wiesbrock, and Pantano. He holds a special and personal bond with these seniors, and he explained that his squad stewards defied his prognostications with respect to their athleticism and leadership abilities in all facets.

“My current senior class was the first group that I have coached from 8th to 12th grade. In the 2019-2020 season, I moved from Hand to coach a struggling Polson Middle School team and get numbers back up so that the Hand team could be fed again with knowledgeable freshmen,” said Docker. “In 2020, I resumed my position at Hand Wrestling and helped my current senior class stay strong due to the COVID shut down by lifting every day. My seniors worked hard and turned into some of the toughest and best wrestlers I could have asked for. They may not have been state champs, but they sure worked hard for what they accomplished. The captains all exceeded my expectations and have grown into the team leaders I always knew that they could be. They all practiced hard and helped the newer wrestlers to grow in technique. Most importantly, they showed the younger wrestlers that hard work makes you better but doesn't always give you what you want, and that is okay because it's the hard work that matters and creates character.”

The Hand roster was comprised of seniors Carlos Santos, Pantano, Simmons, Jacob Roberts, Aaron Stiewing, Wiesbrock; juniors Carter, Cash, Catherine Davern, Avery Vargas-Estevez; sophomores of Fumex, Mylott, Newton; plus freshmen Brayden Dempsey, Elder, King, Lavigne, Portley, Roberts, and Van Hine.