Pinning down how high school wrestling’s conference championships will unfold this weekend could be a little trickier than usual.
Injuries and the widespread flu virus have decimated some teams this season, rendering them unrecognizable.
“Injuries have hit a lot of teams, and that flu bug just doesn’t go away,” Dirigo coach Doug Gilbert said. “We went up to Winslow (Monday), we had all of the Western C regional teams there and it was awful — George Stevens Academy with four kids; Bucksport, last year’s regional runner-up, with four kids. Winslow, which I thought was going to be one of the teams to beat, they had seven. Mt. View had eight. Lisbon showed up with five.”
Dirigo is better equipped than most to deal with injuries and illness because of its depth. The Cougars expect to have just about everyone available when they try to defend their Mid-State League title this Saturday at Mountain Valley High School.
“We’ve got some little mistakes that we want to take care of,” Gilbert said. “I think conditioning-wise we’re about where we want to be.”
A yearly goal for the Cougars is to win what they call the “triple crown,” league, regional and state championships.
They have won the first two legs each of the last two years before falling shy at states both times. Dirigo heads into this postseason with a greater sense of urgency.
“This year is the last chance for the group of seniors that I’ve got,” Gilbert said.
Dirigo is 25-2 with a tournament-tested roster. Seniors Brett Whittemore (152), Thomas Barnett (160) and D.J. Webber (170) eclipsed 100 career wins this season and Nelson Pepin (182) and Zack White (220) should reach the milestone this weekend. Newcomers such as freshman Griffyn Smith (106), who is undefeated, have made significant contributions as well.
Gilbert hopes to have 10 wrestlers place Saturday, and the Cougars will be tough to beat if they pull that off. But he sees plenty of competition on the horizon.
“Mountain Valley has got those four or five kids who are very tough in the lower weights, and there are some tougher kids in the upper weights. York matches up very well with us in the upper weights,” Gilbert said. “Then you’ve got Fryeburg starting to get healthy now. Hopefully, it’s our depth that will be the key.”
With eight wrestlers, led by Jake Thornton (120), Dakota Jacques (132), Brandon Gill (126), Zack Cross (182) and Ian Austin (152/160), the host Falcons are hoping to make a lot of noise in Puiia Gymnasium.
“We’ve got a small team, but we’ve got a good team. There are some talented wrestlers there,” Mountain Valley coach Chris Bean said. “If they go through and somebody gets knocked off here or there and we match up well… It’s funny how it works. That’s what makes it so interesting. Anything can happen.”
If “anything” does happen, Wells and Fryeburg Academy could be involved, too. But Dirigo will be favored to make it three Mid-State titles in a row.
“They’ve got such depth that if somebody’s sick, they can put somebody in there for the day,” Bean said. “Wells pops in there, who knows? It’s got to be between those two, I would think. But things change so quick this time of year.”
Other local wrestlers to watch include Lisbon’s Zach Stevens (132), Monmouth Academy’s James Gambino (138) and Stewart Buzzell (145) and Oak Hill’s Donnie Vannah (170).
Mt. Blue coach Bob O’Connor plans to have three or four wrestlers sit out Saturday’s KVAC championships at Cony High School, including Drew Blanchet (145), who has seen limited action due to knee surgery after football season.
“He’s gaining every day. He’s only been on the mat for a couple of weeks,” O’Connor said.
The Cougars went into the season with a significant drop in numbers, so O’Connor was prepared to do some lineup juggling this season. Fortunately, Travis Stuard (220) has given them a big boost in the upper weights.
“He’s a hammer for us this year. He’s only lost to four kids,” O’Connor said. “He wrestled for me his freshman year, but he was hurt last year and went to Las Vegas the year before.”
Senior Khalil Newbill (126) ranks among the winningest wrestlers in the state with 170 career victories heading into the conference meet. Kevin Moore (132) and Danny Reed (120) have also had strong seasons for the Cougars.
With Mt. Blue holding back wrestlers, someone else will have to emerge to challenge favorite Skowhegan, which is led by former Mt. Blue state champion Tyler Craig.
“Personally, I don’t see anybody that can touch them,” O’Connor said. “They’re just tough all the way up and down the board.”
One of the most improved teams in the conference has been Oxford Hills. Led by Dustin Edwards (285), Malik Geiger (160), Jake Hall (138) and Cordell Brooks (113), the Vikings finished 25-4 during the regular season.
Coach Tony Stevens expects his team to go all out for KVACs.
“I’ve told the guys all year long that we keep building each week, keep improving each week, for the last three weeks of the season,” Stevens said. “We definitely want to do well at KVACs and set ourselves up for regionals. We’ll see a lot of the regional opponents Saturday, so it will give us a good barometer on how we stand.”
Brooks and Geiger, both sophomores, have reached the 30-win mark this year. The Vikings went into the season with good numbers and hope that depth, and good health, can help them improve upon last year’s 11th-place showing at KVACs.
“We’ve got a few kids who have been sick lately, but knock on wood, we should all be pretty healthy right now,” Stevens said.
Other local wrestlers to watch include Edward Little’s Skyler Bang (138) and Sheldon Bang (145), who have once again been training with Oxford Hills this season.