Imagine this. Take Notre Dame-West Haven basketball phenom Tremont Waters and multiply his artistry and dominance on the hardwood by 10. That, Foran wrestling coach Dave Esposito says, was Michael Ross’ 2016-17 season on a wrestling mat.
Have you heard of Ross? Probably not unless you’re a state wrestling aficionado, or — more to the point — one of the poor souls unfortunate enough to face the Foran senior in a wrestling match.
Esposito and Ross both know the drill. Wrestling doesn’t command basketball or football’s following. But those who do follow the sport are fanatical in their devotion, and whenever Ross stepped onto a wrestling mat, it was a foregone conclusion that he’d not just win, but obliterate his opponent.
“He had people forfeiting matches against him on sheer reputation,” Esposito said. “He’s a caged animal.”
Chew on these numbers: The 152-pound senior was 45-0. He won the SCC, Class M, State Open and New England Championship this season.
And he had just six points scored against him in Connecticut.
12Now you can begin to see how Esposito’s Waters comparison holds and why Ross is a slam-dunk pick as the New Haven Register’s Area MVP.
“I’ve been a wrestling assistant and head coach at Foran for eight years and I don’t think there was anybody in the state of Connecticut that was more dominant than Mike Ross this year,” Esposito said. “He was unbelievable. He was so utterly dominant it’s hard to explain. There might have been other guys who went undefeated, but he was so far above everyone else.”
It wasn’t always this easy for Ross. In fact, were it not for a change of scenery midway through his high school career, Ross and Esposito believe none of this would have been possible.
Put simply, Ross was a problem child growing up in Stratford. He admits he was disinterested in school, a perpetual wise guy and a troublemaker throughout elementary and middle school. That reputation carried over to Bunnell, where he spent his first two years of high school.
While Ross joined the wrestling team and won a Class M championship as a 132-pound sophomore, his life was headed in the wrong direction.
“I was immature,” he said. “I was always bad news in the school district. Everyone knew I was a bad kid. And it just carried over into high school. It got to the point where, instead of trying to solve the problem, the school district had a target on my back. They would start to look for any little thing I did. There was just no support system there.”
With that in mind, Ross’ family hopped over the Housatonic River and bought a fixer-uper in Woodmont — right around the corner from Foran High — where he could attend and wrestle under the auspices of Esposito, a family friend and Ross’ youth wrestling coach. After years as an assistant, Esposito had recently become the head coach at Foran and was in the process of building a winner.
“I knew what kind of troubles he was having,” Esposito said. “He wasn’t a very good student, or a very good teammate at Bunnell. He had behavior problems and problems with authority. I remember telling all of his teachers at Foran, you let me know if you have any problems with him and I’ll talk to him. I knew he would listen to me. But I never once got any of those calls. Whenever I would check up on him, all of his teachers would tell me he’s doing great.”
It helped that Ross was reunited with Gino Esposito, the coach’s all-state son, and Ryan Luth, who were two of Ross’ best friends growing up. Their dedication to the sport and their attention to its demands had a profound impact on Ross.
Ross had discovered his passion, a pursuit through which he could channel his innate aggressions.
“He kind of has this inner anger and he has this chip on his shoulder,” Esposito said. “I think he’s always had this chip on his shoulder, he has such anger and aggressiveness, it was just that he had to harness it. When he was younger, that was his downfall, if you got into his head or he had setbacks, it would be a downward spiral for him.
“He’s finally channeled it in positive way.”
It wasn’t without hard work, a grueling training regimen which Ross estimated as “something stupid like 12 hours a week,” either at local cross training facilities with Esposito and Luth or in Gino Esposito’s homemade gym in his backyard shed, and with practice matches on makeshift mats in their basements.
“Wrestling’s become my whole life,” he said. “I think of wrestling when I wake up. I think of wrestling when I go to sleep. Wrestling is on my mind 24-7. I’ve become incredibly dedicated. I try not to think about winning or losing, I just think about how what I have to do to be the best.”
He went 51-4 during his first year at Foran, winning the SCC and Class M championship at 145 pounds and a third-place finish at the State Open. But that wasn’t nearly good enough. A pep talk from Esposito, he said, set him toward the goal of winning it all.
“I don’t remember what he said to me but he just blew my mind with all this stuff. I was going to win the Open title,” said Ross. “I got a lot stronger in the offseason and my mindset got a lot better from last year. I just trained so freaking hard. I truly believe we trained as hard, if not harder, than Olympic athletes. Before a match, I’d think to myself, nobody works harder than me, nobody deserves to beat me.”
Nobody did throughout Ross’ senior year, though one came close.
Five of the six points scored against him last season came courtesy of Branford’s Zach Cash, who managed to get the then two-time Class M champion on his back, nearly pinning him in the Class M 152-pound final.
It stunned Ross then, and he remains bewildered about it.
“It was really bad,” he said. “I was in complete shock. I’d wrestled that kid a dozen times. I was up 7-0 and made a mistake, got caught on my back — boom — five points. I was just in kind of a shock.”
Ross used the turn of fortune in his favor. He refocused on that singular, season-long belief: No one had worked as hard as him. No one was his equal.
Ross went up 19-5 over the next two periods before pinning Cash in the third round (4:59) to claim his third-straight state M championship.
It never got good that good for opponents again. He took the State Open with two pins, a 5-1 decision and a 15-0 technical fall in the championship. At New Englands, Ross won the championship with two falls, a 7-4 decision and a 5-0 decision in the final.
In the NHSCA Nationals at Virginia Beach in late March, Ross’ last official wrestling event of his high school career, he competed against fellow All-Americans and went 3-1 with two technical falls and a decision before losing his first match of the year in the quarterfinals, an 8-2 decision to Vincent Dolce of Arizona.
Top wrestling programs have taken notice during his successful forays into national competition. Coaches, he said, are constantly buzzing his phone. Ross’ grades improved dramatically. Ross says he carries a perfect grade-point average since coming to Foran. Now, he’s close to parlaying his academic and wrestling success into a college career.
Ross says he’s considering several schools to continue his wrestling career. One is 13-time (and reigning) Division III champion Wartburg College in Iowa. The other is nearby Johnson & Wales in Providence.
“If you would have told me 10 years ago that Michael Ross would be going to college, period, I would have laughed. He’s not only going to college, he’s going to be a great wrestler in college. He has a great future ahead of him.
“The wins and accomplishments are great, but his tremendous growth he’s had as a person is why I’m so proud of him.”