MIDDLETOWN — Is Middletown High’s wrestling team preparing once again to assert itself at the state level?
There are signs of this after the Blue Dragons followed their victory over crosstown rival Xavier in December by putting two-time defending state champion Bristol Eastern on the ropes in their first meet of the new year.
Middletown (8-2) won eight of its first nine dual meets before last week’s 37-34 loss to CCC South rival Bristol Eastern. The unbeaten Lancers are ranked second in the CT Wrestling Online Top 10 poll.
Before that, the ninth-ranked Dragons’ only other loss was to then-No. 5 Simsbury. Xavier was ranked eighth in the poll.
Longtime coach Mark Fong is taking a reserved approach to the team’s early showing. Maybe this is because underclassmen again form the bulk of his lineup, supporting just three seniors — Eli Cyr at 113 pounds, Ryan Conklin at 152 and Nygell Smikle, a New Haven Register All-State football lineman, at 285.
“It’s a much different roster than we had last year,” Fong said. “Everyone last year who wrestled as a freshman at the varsity took their lumps.”
Now, some of those wrestlers are dishing them. Fong sees noticeable progress up and down the lineup — on both the scoreboard and during practice time.
“They drill well, they practice well. It is enjoyable to come into practice today and work on the things we’re working on,” Fong said. “Come the state tournament, we have to get physically stronger and our technique has to be better. We have to be better offensively on our feet.”
The Blue Dragons, who visit Platt Wednesday for another CCC South dual meet, had four strong performances at the Warde Invitational in Fairfield on Saturday. Cyr won his title at 103, junior Kalil Shabazz finished third at 126 pounds, junior Amari Lemon was fourth at 145 and junior Jake Toth fourth at 195.
The Bristol Eastern match is likely to become a reference point for future performance.
The match played out in front of a raucous crowd inside the Keigwin School gymnasium, where Smikle, a Register All-State football player who is wrestling for the first time, and Cyr, who was fifth in Class L as a junior, won by decision for the team’s first points.
At 126, Shabazz built an 8-1 lead on his opponent, Carson Sassu, through two periods before pinning him at the 5:13 mark.
Freshman Ian Mounts, who was wrestling at 138 pounds, suffered an injury 1:09 into his match and was forced to default. Middletown regained the lead against Eastern when Lemon scored two points in the final 23 seconds at 145 and won by a 5-2 decision.
The Dragons’ star of the meet was Terrell Johnson. The sophomore trailed Eastern’s Joe Morelli 7-3 through four minutes of action. He tied the match in the opening minute of the third period, fell behind again, scored a takedown to tie it at 9 inside of 30 seconds, and ended up pinning his opponent with 3.8 ticks on the clock.
“He just wore him down,” Fong said.
Johnson’s victory tied the meet at 28. In what Fong called the deciding encounter, sophomore Jake Bowen lost at 182 when Dylan Garcia got a last-second takedown to win by a 7-4 decision.
“That’s a six-point swing. If he wins the match, we win the match,” Fong said. “But Jake did a great job. That kid (Garcia) is a good athlete. Jake battled, he just fell short at the end with his technique and his defense.”
Fans probably would disagree, but in Fong’s mind the last two matches were anti-climactic.
Though Toth won by pin to give the Dragons a three-point lead, sophomore Erik Dubon, who was a heavy underdog in the 220-pound division, was pinned by Trin Gonzalez at 1:59. Gonzalez was the Class L champ at 195 pounds last year.
“Our effort was there,” Fong said. “It’s just that Bristol Eastern is good. There’s a reason why they’re a two-time defending state champion, a reason why they’re ranked No. 2 in the state and haven’t lost in two or three years. But we were close. We had it.”
After the match, a lot of what the Blue Dragons heard from Fong was about looking inward.
“Even though it came down to Erik, I would not put the loss on him at all,” Fong said. “Where we are superior, we didn’t (win by pin), so we didn’t do our job where we were the heavy favorite.
“We talked about, ‘Where could you have found three points in your individual match? What could you have done to find those 3 points?’ ” Fong said. “And then we talked about, ‘Hey, Eastern is No. 2 in the state and we’re right there. We’re right there. You’ve got to take that as a positive.’ ”
Middletown is ranked 10th in this week’s state coaches poll.
“We’ve got seven weeks until the state tournament, so we just have to build off this and get some momentum,” Fong said.