The Lisbon/Oak Hill wrestling team watches a recent match from the sidelines. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)
LISBON — Many find time to be thankful for the little things in life during the holiday season.
Wrestlers and their coaches at Lisbon and Oak Hill high schools have reason to count their blessings this year. Little and big things are possible again with the merger of the rival schools’ wrestling programs.
The schools formed a cooperative program after numbers dwindled in both programs in recent years, as they have throughout Maine high school wrestling.
Five wrestlers from Oak Hill and 10 from Lisbon have joined forces on the mat, with Oak Hill coach Schyler Gagnon and Lisbon’s Ted Albasini teaming up as co-coaches. The team, which hasn’t officially adopted a nickname but generally refers to itself as LisOak, is not only glad to have a full roster with which to compete in duals and big meets, but more ways to prepare for that competition.
“Having people to practice with is big,” Gagnon said. “It’s tough to run a practice with three or four kids.”
“Variety is the spice of life,” Albasini said. “You’ve got to change it up in wrestling.”
Practice variety is important for a number of reasons, including helping wrestlers adapt to different styles they will face over the course of the season. It also breaks up the monotony that settles in after wrestling the same teammate day after day.
“They had a dedicated practice place, so we’ve been going over to their place to practice for a couple of years now,” Gagnon said.
“We’ve been practicing with Lisbon forever and we’re all comfortable with each other,” said junior Zoe Buteau, whose brother, Danny, graduated last spring as a four-time state champion.
Since the Maine Principals’ Association relaxed its rules on co-ops last year, more and more schools have formed co-ops across the state. Prior to that change, wrestlers were able to train and compete with a different school but still had to represent their own school in competition.
Because Lisbon and Oak Hill, which are located about a 20-minute drive apart, had already laid the groundwork for a co-op — and knowing the Raiders’ numbers would continue to dwindle once her older brother left — Buteau wasn’t suprised when she learned the two teams would become one.
Lisbon sophomore Cam Bourget, however, did not see the merger coming.
“I was surprised. I didn’t know they were coming in,” Bourget said. “But I thought it was great because it fills out the whole team. Now, we have a full team of all of the weight classes involved.”
The two schools bring varying traditions to the co-op. Oak Hill has produced some outstanding individual wrestlers such as Gagnon and Danny Buteau, but never won a team state title.
Lisbon, meanwhile, has produced both great wrestlers and great teams, winning eight state team titles, most recently in 2010.
The coaches were never worried those traditions would clash as a co-op, and had no reservations about starting their own relationship as equals.
“He asked me what my philosophy was and I asked him what his philosophy was, and that was it,” Albasini said. “We’ve been coaching together (at practices) for a couple of years, so we knew each other.”
“Our styles mesh pretty well,” Gagnon said. “We don’t have completely different styles, but they’re just different enough to keep it interesting for the kids.”
The wrestlers welcome the different viewpoints.
“I’ve always wrestled my own game and I’ve had many different coaches,” Buteau said. “I will do what’s comfortable for me, but also what’s most efficient.”
The transition looks pretty seamless at meets, too, with wrestlers from Lisbon and from Oak Hill rooting each other on under one flag now. Buteau, senior Bradley Harriman and sophomore Jack Tibbetts are among the top wrestlers in their respective weight classes in the Mid-State League.
But with a roster dominated by underclassmen (six sophomores and two freshmen), the focus is on the long-term goal of LisOak wrestling carving out its own niche in the sport.
“Hopefully we can start to draw so we can get a solid program between the two schools,” Gagnon said.