That choice of words is meaningful. Notice that “defending” appears nowhere in the equation.

Due to declining participation in the sport, particularly among the smaller schools in its membership, the Maine Principals’ Association disbanded Class C. Dirigo dominated there a year ago, winning the state meet by 56 points. In addition to four champions, the Cougars have five returnees who reached the championship match and earned runner-up honors in their weight classes.

While we’re being specific with our terms, it’s still fair to proclaim the Cougars one of the favorites, just not the only one.

“I think it’s definitely a little bit more pressure, because now you have something to prove,” junior Bryce Whittemore said. “People said last year that Class C wasn’t as competitive, so now it’s time to go into shut ‘em up mode.”

Whittemore won the 152-pound title in Class C as a sophomore. Griffyn Smith took top honors at 120 to become a three-time champion. Spencer Vaughan (170) and Dalton Berry (182) each had his arm raised in victory at states.

With the exception of Smith, there’s a strong chance that Dirigo’s other champions will move up a rung on the weight ladder, adding to the physical and mental challenge.

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“It’s not that much different,” Berry, a sophomore, said. “We don’t feel the pressure either way. We just kind of go out there and have fun.”

Dirigo scored 211.5 points in the 2015 state showcase, padded by the runner-up efforts of Jon Wainwright, Gus Brown, Hunter White, Colin Woodhead and Lucas MacDonald. By comparison, Class B champion Ellsworth checked in with 147.5.

Foxcroft, Mountain Valley, Camden Hills and Belfast all are traditional ‘B’ powers. Other schools, such as Oak Hill and former ‘C’ schools Lisbon and Monmouth, won’t have the depth to challenge for the team title but feature multiple wresters capable of getting to the championship or consolation finals.

“I think states are going to be tougher,” Vaughan said. “There will be full brackets. I think there were only one or two weight classes last year where we had full brackets. It’s going to be tough, but it will be more rewarding.”

Unlike other sports in which teams tend to pick on opponents their own size during the regular season, Dirigo will be battle-tested long before February arrives.

The Cougars defeated Camden Hills and Belfast at the Oxford Hills Invitational this past weekend. Dirigo dropped a three-point decision to the host Vikings in the finals but gave away half its points via forfeit.

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“Typically we’ll wrestle between 30 and 40 of the total amount of schools (with wrestling teams) in the state of Maine, out of 56, 57,” Dirigo coach Doug Gilbert said. “We see them at tournaments or somewhere. This year we go to Dexter, we go to York, and we hit everybody in between.”

Dirigo enters the season with the promise of many potential milestones ahead.

The Cougars will host a Mid-State League meet on Saturday, at which Gilbert is expected to achieve the 300th dual meet victory of his career. Whittemore is on target to hit 100 career wins the same day.

“It’s definitely a little bit of pressure, because now you have that target on your back that either you give yourself or some people give you,” Whittemore said of the state champion label. “A lot of people want that same feeling, and I want it back too, so it makes me drive myself that much more.”

Smith, who has yet to determine whether he will compete at 120 or drop down to 113, could become the first four-time state champion in school history.

“I don’t like to think about it, because it gets me nervous,” Smith said. “My freshman year I didn’t even put that into perspective. I was more thinking of the record for most wins. Then sophomore year came and I said I can probably go for four if I work hard.”

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Gilbert said there was more pressure in being everyone’s presumptive state champion a year ago than there is in ascending to a new neighborhood.

Dirigo’s enrollment of 314 students is substantially beneath the new Class B cutoff of 574.

“Last year I found stress. We were favorites. We were supposed to win. This year, are we supposed to win? Well, we’re a Class C school. Is there any pressure on us? Nah, I don’t think so,” Gilbert said. “I think we can do it with our depth. Ellsworth has four returning Class B champions. Do they have a supporting cast to go with them? We’ll see.”

The Cougars lost only one wrestler from its 2014-15 lineup. One of their freshman newcomers, heavyweight Avery Bradeen, went 4-0 in the Oxford Hills tournament.

“Coach said at the first couple of practices this year that it’s the quickest he’s seen our team be at this level,” Whittemore said. “I think we might have only one or two kids that haven’t been wrestling all the way up through from peewee. It helps that we have that chemistry built up.”

Two months from now, the veteran coach knows that mathematics will prove every bit as crucial as chemistry.

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Time will tell if those numbers add up to a turn at the head of the (new) class.

“Right now I think there are four, maybe five schools that can score 100 points at the state meet, and I think maybe 120 will win it,” Gilbert said. “I would hope to be in that five. If you’re playing poker, Texas Hold ‘Em, there’s one more card to come. Who’s that card going to be? Who’s going step up that day of the state meet?”

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2015-16 Winter Preview

Who to watch in high school sports this season:

Wrestling: 

Nordic Skiing: Ashley Pratt, Emily Thibodeau look to lead Leavitt

Boys’ Basketball: James Ouellette of Spruce Mountain pushes through injury, tragedy

Girls’ Basketball: Winthrop returns to varsity schedule

Boy’s Hockey: Edward Little looking to make a name for itself

Swimming: Lewiston’s Matt Charest gets a lift

Indoor Track: Soracco’s back in track for Lewiston High School

Girls’ Hockey: Lewiston sets out on a different path


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