Don’t call it a comeback. Don’t call it an upset. Certainly don't call it a fluke.
Call it perseverance.
When the wrestling team started the season, Head Coach Derek Dion expected his group of determined, yet lesser-known competitors to have to fight and claw their way toward a 15 win season. The thought of competing for a division championship in the Central Connecticut Conference Division of the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference seemed like little more than an unobtainable dream.
Led by a trio of senior captains that had never even tried wrestling before joining the team as undersized freshman, Southington’s varsity grapplers did the unthinkable.
Using an unsung hero almost every night, they defeated five “Top Ten” teams and amassed a 19-2 record following a win over rival New Britain High School on Wednesday night. The victory comes just one week after the team shocked the CCC and neighboring Farmington, handing them their first loss of the season to pave their way towards the division title.
“This truly has been one of the greatest groups of kids I’ve ever had. It was one of the most enjoyable years to be a coach in a long time,” Dion said Wednesday.
“No one has had to carry this team. They work together, they fight together and we’ve had guys who no one ever expected step up to get their day in the sun, to be the unsung hero. These kids deserve all the credit for what they’ve accomplished,” he said.
It may have been a surprise to the league, the coaches and those throughout the community, but senior captains Noah Sheffy, Mark Jaffer and Don Rinaldi said from day one, everyone on the team from freshman to senior had one single goal in mind: victory.
“We told everyone on the first day, the goal is to earn that patch; to be division champions,” Sheffy said. “It seemed like a joke at the time, but we were all committed to it. As seniors, we’ve earned it every year and we weren’t willing to give up that goal.”
Once just a couple of “scrawny freshman without any knowledge of the sport,” Assistant Coach Kevin Seeger said he has been impressed by the heart and resiliency shown as the team fought their way up the ranks, knocking off opponent after opponent on their way to earning the title of sixth-ranked Connecticut wrestling team.
The group has defeated the likes of powerhouses such as Bristol Eastern, Trumball and Farmington, all ranked in the top five when they lost to Southington. The only blemishes have been losses to Ledyard and Franklin, Mass.
But it hasn’t just been the senior leadership that led the team to victory after victory.
Sheffy and Rinaldi said the grapplers got help from almost everyone and have watched juniors Ryan Dupuis and Nate Solomon, sophomore Zach Maxwell and freshman standout Zach Bylykbashi carve out their own piece of stardom.
“There have been standouts on all levels,” Jaffer said. “Everyone carried a good attitude, everyone showed up ready and willing to practice and everyone stayed focus on the task at hand. We’d pick each other up, on and off the mat.”
The season hasn’t been without its challenges, however. The team has struggled to fill the gaps as injuries mounted at times – Sheffy is out for the year after suffering a recent injury – but Dion said there was always seemingly someone ready to step up and fill the void.
These efforts haven’t gone unnoticed either. Farmington Head Coach Eric Misko, impressed by the way Southington fought to defeat his previously undefeated team and climb over them in the rankings, was complimentary of the Blue Knights resiliency and determination.
“Derek Dion had his guys very well prepared and they wrestled with great passion,” Misko said following last Wednesday’s loss to the Blue Knights. “From top to bottom they were stingy with their points and wanted it badly.”
So what has been the key to success this year? Sheffy said it has been as simple as living by two words: “have fun.”
“There was never a moment, no matter how hard we were working, that we didn’t enjoy it. Everyone has had fun and that’s been the secret for us this season.”