DIXFIELD – When Hal Watson started the wrestling program at Dirigo High School two decades ago, there weren’t any great expectations. The sport was considered secondary.
But through hard work and dedication, the team is now recognized among the top programs in the state.
Watson is entering a new chapter in his life. He is retiring from both coaching and teaching.
“Why this year?” asked Watson. “Because it is time for a youth movement. (Head coach) Doug (Gilbert) is young and energetic, but he needs somebody who can contribute more than I am able at this time.We have two fine young guys in Dennis (Hanson) and Dana (Whittemore), who can step in, and the program will not miss a beat. I have been thinking of moving on for a couple of years, but this year it just became apparent to me that I needed to let young guys have a chance.”
Watson had stepped away for a few years in the 1990s, but once the sport becomes entrenched in an individual’s blood, it is nearly impossible to let go. He was lured back and has served as an assistant for the past several years.
Dirigo continued its strong tradition this winter by winning the Western Class C regionals and placing second at states. The Cougars were led by state champions Derek Daley, Jon Smith and Kyle Meile.
Watson feels fortunate to have been along for the ride. He can recall every athlete and the role that he or she played in the development of the program.
In 1986, current SAD 21 Superintendent Tom Ward, who was principal at Dirigo, asked Watson if he would restart the wrestling program. He jumped at the opportunity. A few days later, a group of kids were ready to do battle.
Watson learned early that wrestling wasn’t for the timid. A veteran coach gave him that advice after Dirigo was shut out.
“Jerry Perkins told me something I’ve never forgotten,” Watson said. “He said that there is nothing wrong with what you have done with the kids, you just don’t have them in good enough shape. I suppose that I should have been offended, but I listened, and we started to win the third period.”
Laying the foundation
For several years, the team wasn’t allowed to practice in the gym, so the Cougars used Watson’s classroom. The sacrifices paid dividends when Dirigo won the state championship in 1990.
“This was a group of athletes who went from being a team that some schools wouldn’t wrestle because they were considered not good enough, to being a school one big school wouldn’t wrestle because they couldn’t compete with Dirigo,” Watson said.
During his tenure, Dirigo has produced 33 state champions, three most outstanding wrestlers at the state meet, and dozen of medalists at tournaments.
“When we started, I had in mind to offer a chance for people who are not necessarily equipped to play basketball another option – wrestling,” Watson said. “At some point during the (1986) season, I realized that we had potential to be something more than just also-rans.”
Dirigo proved its competitiveness by compiling a 79-18 record during a four-year stretch. Those early team laid down a solid foundation.
Watson credits all his assistants for the continuity of the program. Each one contributed to the efforts, and the lesson carried over into the classroom. Former Mexico standout Mike Burke, a student teacher, wrestled the entire team in one practice and pinned them all. Burke had no discipline problems in class after that. Former Rumford state champions Tom Hines and Spencer Quirion helped out. Pete Glover, who’s son Shad won a state championship, worked out on the mats. Glenn Gurney had a similar philosophy as Watson and was a natural fit to replace Watson as head coach. Gurney then stepped down after winning the 1996 state championship. Watson soon returned to the sport.
“When Doug (Gilbert) took over, I looked at his philosophy,” Watson said. “I said, I can coach with him.’ I feel honored that I was given the job.”
Cut from the cloth of a different era, Watson embodied a calming demeanor at matches. He earned the respect and admiration of colleagues and officials for being a class act. He always permitted someone to speak, but his temper surfaced if the words slighted his kids. At one state meet, a coach was arguing about the seeds. After listening long enough, Watson said, “I don’t care where you seed them because my kids will kick your butt.”
Watson will miss the camaraderie with the coaches and officials, friends that he will not see as often, he said, but mainly he will miss the chance to help a young person grow.
Wrestling has influenced his life and family. One story brings a twinkle to his eye. One night at a wrestling match, Watson asked a lady to step outside for a minute, gave her a small package and asked her to hurry and open it, because he had to get back inside to make sure that the team rolled the mats correctly.
“The package was an engagement ring,” Watson said. “Martha stuck with me through the ride. She has supported and understood the whole way. I am truly blessed.”