DIXFIELD — Pillows and blankets bundled under their arms, the Dirigo wrestling team boarded a school bus bound for Wells before dawn last Saturday.
The two-hour ride took the Cougars to their biggest meet of the season — the Mid-State League championship, so a little shut-eye was in order.
“I’ve never seen a group of kids that sleep like these guys,” Dirigo coach Doug Gilbert said. “Even the coaches. Before we’re out of Dixfield, I’m laid down and I’m sleeping.”
At 22-2 heading into their conference championship, the Cougars had reason to be relaxed. And they were well-rested and all business by the time they arrived in Wells. They placed 12 of 14 wrestlers and rallied to defeat rival Mountain Valley by 10 points.
This Saturday, they’ll make an even longer bus trip to Bucksport in pursuit of the Western C regional championship, with hopes of getting the second leg in Dirigo’s first triple crown — Mid-State, regional and state titles — since 2007.
Coming off fourth and third-place Class C finishes in 2010 and 2011, the Cougars could be pushed over the top this year by a talented and deep junior class. Eight of them placed at Mid-States and will be among the top seeds at regionals.
The nine juniors outnumber some of the wrestling teams they compete against and are a tight-knit mix of veterans and newcomers, defending state champions and rapidly improving wrestlers.
The group includes a defending state champion, D.J. Webber, and four others, Thomas Barnett, Nelson Pepin, Alex Snowman and Brett Whittemore, who placed at states in 2011.
When Gilbert walks into the Dirigo High School lunch room each morning, he’ll usually find his more decorated veterans sitting alongside rising contributors such as Cliff Boynton, Riley Lombardi, Misty Steward, and Zach White.
“We have a wide group of friends and we all like to push each other,” Barnett said.
Many of them have been pushing each other for almost half of their lives, wrestling together since elementary school. They won the triple crown — Mid-States, regionals and states in eighth grade.
They took their lumps when they were freshmen, sometimes more on the practice mat than in competition against other schools.
“Alex Miele and Brandon Jonaitis, they were seniors our freshman year, and they beat on us,” Webber said. “Now, they don’t beat us. They all probably made us what we are.”
They wouldn’t be what they are without a collective work ethic that consistently impresses their coach, and a willingness to do whatever it takes to make themselves and each other better.
“Me, Thomas and Nelson, we try to pound each other in practice,” Webber said.
“And if one slacks off, they’re going to know it,” Barnett added.
Their competitive drive is contagious. Steward, the most recent edition, joined the team before this season.
“They looked like they were having fun,” she said.
At first, Steward ingratiated herself to her teammates by making them snacks. Lately, though, she’s been cooking up points, finishing third in the 103-pound class at Mid-States.
“I’m starting to do some moves without even thinking. Before I had to think ‘Oh, what can I do now.’ Now, I’m just doing it,” she said.
The key to such improvement is having everyone focused and driven during practice, Gilbert said.
“That’s what keeps the team going, when you start pushing your partners and everything else. All of them are pushing each other really, really hard,” he said.
In that regard, the juniors, the entire team, takes its cue from senior Caleb Hall, a former state champion who joined Dirigo’s 100-win club this season.
“Caleb’s the key. Caleb’s maybe not the most gifted of all athletes, but Caleb just works harder than anybody else,” Gilbert said.
“He’s not the one to go out and give you a speech and tell us what to do. He’s a leader just by example,” Barnett said.
The Cougars thrive on following each other’s examples.
“If we get on a roll, they feed off each other,” Gilbert said. “When we beat up on Fryeburg (a 58-16 victory on Jan. 9), it started with Riley Lombardi getting an upset. And then Caleb goes out and gets a pin and then Whittemore goes out an upsets (Kirk) Hubbard and it just kept snowballing. The next thing you know, it’s 58-6 or something like that before we even turn the corner. It’s like ‘Wow.'”
When Gilbert sees his team building up such momentum, he tells his wrestlers to “keep the train rolling,” like they did at Mid-States, when they trailed Mountain Valley by as much as 23 points and nine points heading into the consolation finals.
“If we can start a train, it will turn into a freight train,” Barnett said. “It just won’t stop.”
The Class of 2013’s run at Dirigo will have to stop eventually, a reality Gilbert isn’t looking forward to facing.
“I’m going to be crying next year when I graduate them all,” he said.