FARMINGTON — For the past five years, Tyler Craig has been traveling around the country to wrestle. This Saturday, his family will be traveling from around the country to Maine to watch him wrestle.
Relatives from New York, Pennsylvania and Nebraska will watch Craig and his Mt. Blue Cougars compete for the Class A title at Windham High School. The unbeaten, 106-pound Craig, who already has a national championship on his resume, will be trying to become the first freshman to win a state individual title in Mt. Blue’s storied history.
Craig, 40-0 with 29 pins, will be the top seed in his weight class.
All of that may seem to add up to a lot of pressure for a freshman wrestler. But Craig, a veteran of meets eight times as large as Saturday’s eight-man bracket, will treat it like the mat veteran he is.
“He’s doesn’t have that deer-in-headlights look as most freshmen have had heading into the state meet,” Mt. Blue coach Bob O’Connor said.
There will be more talented wrestlers competing on Saturday, but none more dedicated to or passionate about the sport.
Craig has come a long way since they first met, when Craig joined O’Connor’s Pee-Wee wrestling program.
“He was kind of raw. The first few years, he took his lumps,” O’Connor said. “We was kind of a long, gangly kid that got better by wrestling.”
“He’s the perfect example of what summertime wrestling and dedication can do for you,” he added.
Craig learned wrestling from his father, Robert, who wrestled in high school in New York. When the family moved from Florida to Maine, he joined the Farmington rec program and gradually gained an appreciation for wrestling’s competitive uniqueness.
“I was never really natural when it came to learning new moves, so we just had to practice a lot,” he said.
Practicing with his father on a mat in their garage and wrestling year-round in at least 100 matches per year, Craig developed into a technically proficient wrestler with, as O’Connor explained, “a never-say-die attittude.”
The out-of-state tournaments Craig competes in often dwarf any held in Maine, with as many as 2,000 wrestlers competing on 20 mats.
“It’s really crazy, because the brackets aren’t just eight-man brackets like you have here,” Craig said. “Sometimes you can have 64-man brackets, and there aren’t the five-match limits like you have here. You’re pretty sore the next day.”
Before his high school career began, he wrestled in some of the biggest meets in the nation, such as the Ohio Tournament of Champions, Brute Empire Nationals and the Big Horn Nationals in Colorado, where he won the 14 & under 110-pound title.
“It’s just an awesome feeling when you achieve something in wrestling,” he said. “It’s not like team sports where if the team wins, you may not have had anything to do with it. When you’re on the mat and you’re victorious, you can say you did it and that all of the hard work paid off.”
Not surprisingly, wrestling in smaller meets back home was a bit of a letdown for Craig. He lost a preseason meet to Fryeburg Academy’s Connor Sheehan. Even though Sheehan is a defending state champion and wrestles in the 113-pound class, Craig was disappointed that he wasn’t as focused as he should have been for the match.
Focus continued to be an issue during the season, although it never came close to translating into another loss.
“His focus was there during the season, but it was kind of hit-and-miss throughout the year because of the competition he faced,” O’Connor said. “He did wrestle to his competition and had some major decisions and techs where he should have pinned the kids.”
“It’s anticlimactic (wrestling a high school schedule),” Craig said. “It is a little difficult when you’re not facing the best competition. You can’t expect to get better just by wrestling.”
That means compensating by putting in more time on the practice mat at home, where he and his father are joined by younger brothers Cody, a seventh-grader, and Jacob, a third-grader and fellow national champion.
Despite wrestling too methodically, as he put it, Craig rolled through the KVAC championships. More focused at regionals, he dominated, pinning all three of his opponents in the first period.
Craig’s opponents shouldn’t count on a letdown from him this week. Winning a state title and competing in New Englands are all the motivation he needs.
“I think I need to really focus, tune in and do what I always do, which is just go in there and work hard,” he said.