Dawson Stevens, Jeff Worster, and Zuka Mabior are three cornerstones of a strong Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School wrestling program. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)
PARIS — As the numbers in Maine high school wrestling continue to decline, it has forced some programs to fold, others to merge and the Maine Principals’ Association to consolidate from three classes to two in 2016.
Wrestling’s pulse remains strong, however, in several programs in central and western Maine, including at Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School.
“We have a large team this year. We’ve got 31 kids wrestling. That’s a lot,” said Tony Stevens, who is entering his second decade as the Vikings’ coach.
A healthy feeder system, from the youth program up through middle school, sets the foundation. Stevens’ involvement, along with his coaching staff of Nate Danforth, Chris Cobbett, Shawn Dexter and and Jeff Worster, sets the tone and establishes continuity from those lower levels. Team success and a steady stream of individual state champions helps get others interested in the high school program.
The Vikings are coming off another strong season that saw them finish third at KVACs, fourth at regionals and seventh at Class A states. All four of their wrestlers who made the podium at states, seniors Dawson Stevens and Zuka Mabior, junior Jaden David and sophomore J.J. Worster, are back, along with a bushel of seniors and sophomores, and have the Vikings expecting big things this winter.
“We’ve got a pretty good group of seniors who have been with us for a while, and they’re pretty focused this year,” Tony Stevens said. “We’ve talked about peaking for KVACs, regionals and states, and they really help out the younger guys and new wrestlers to get up to speed.”
“No matter what we’re doing, whether we’re playing a sport during that season or not, we’re in the weight room lifting and getting better,” said Dawson Stevens, Tony’s son. “I feel like the senior class pushes everyone to get better because we know our potential.”
“It’s our last year, so one last ride,” Mabior said. “Some of us won’t be going to college to wrestle, so this is really the only shot that we have.”
Dawson Stevens gave an indication of how high his ceiling can be this year with an impressive final month of his junior season. At 160 pounds, he won the conference and regional titles and was runner-up at states. After winning his consi at all-state, he did some of his best wrestling at New England championships, where he finished fourth.
“I wanted to just win a couple of matches and make it to the second day but I ended up placing,” he said. “I think I should have won my last match, so I want to go harder at practice this year. I know all of us sometimes don’t feel like going at practice, but we’ve just got to grind it out. Wrestling’s a grind.”
Dawson recalled badgering his father to let him start wrestling competitively when he was as young as 4 or 5 years old. Tony wanted to hold him back a little longer so he wouldn’t burn out but finally relented, and his son hasn’t held anything back since.
“He’s a wicked competitor,” Tony Stevens said. “He doesn’t like to lose, but he’s calm about it. He doesn’t lose his head.”
A balky ankle that limited him late in football season is back to 100 percent, so in addition to helping the Vikings win their first team state title since 1989, Dawson Stevens’ goal is to go undefeated in Maine and win a New England championship.
Like his classmate, Mabior exceeded his own expectations while competing at 182 last year with second-place finishes at KVACs and all-state and third and fourth-place finishes at regionals and states, respectively. But he admitted he still had doubts about how well he had wrestled “until I got to New Englands.”
“When I was up by two in a match in the first round of New Englands against a fifth-seeded wrestler from Massachusetts, that’s when I realized it’s not just a fluke or I have a bad weight class,” he said. “The hard work actually paid off. It’s built my confidence coming into this year, but it hasn’t made me cocky.”
“In practice, he’s go, go, go all the time,” Tony Stevens said of Mabior. “He doesn’t slow down.”
J.J. Worster, Jeff’s son, also comes from a wrestling family, and pulled off a rare feat as a freshman in the 220 class, winning KVACs, finishing second at regionals and third at states and all-state.
“He’s been wrestling since kindergarten,” Tony Stevens said. “He’s just a big, strong kid, but he also wrestles at the lightweight. He uses middleweight/lightweight moves. He can take shots and do leg rides and all that stuff.”
Worster said he was spurred on last year by an early wake-up call.
“I lost my very first match last year at our preseason meet,” said Worster, who was coming off an undefeated middle school career. “That was definitely a game-changer right there. It was probably the best thing that could have happened.”
Worster and the rest of the Vikings continue to benefit from having competitive teammates and a lot of different styles to practice against, and the example of the seniors to follow.
“I look up to Dawson and Zuka as leaders because the impact they’ve had on this program is great,” Worster said. “I practice with Zuka and he makes me work and makes me get better. He’s probably the best competition because he’s around my weight. And Dawson, he’s always been up there in competition level.”
Raising the level of competition for all of the Vikings will be one of the legacies of the senior class, regardless of how their final season plays out, Dawson Stevens said.
“You look around the room and you see all of these wrestlers … We’ve got a lot of girls, five girls now. I’m extremely proud of that and of these boys and girls. They work very hard,” he said.