WINSTED — Want a glimpse into the heart of a near cult-like sport like high school wrestling?
Talk to a few people after a match like Northwestern’s 65-15 win over the Thomaston/Holy Cross co-op and 6-6 draw against a two-man Woodland team attached to Thomaston/Holy Cross, dubbed the Berkshire Valley Bears.
There was never a doubt of the outcome in the main match Wednesday night at Northwestern High School.
The Highlanders, the biggest team in the Berkshire League with a roster in the low 20s and an 8-1 dual-meet record, took 10 of the 14 weight classes by forfeit.
But three of the nine kids on the Bears roster won, with a decision and two pins and one of the two Wolverines scored a pin.
“It’s a little weird going up against the bigger teams,” Thomaston sophomore Cesar Velez said. “But smaller means a tighter family. We have inside jokes and we support each other.”
Every high school sports team thinks of itself that way, but the glare of a one-on-one sport with the distinct possibility of utter glory or utter defeat and embarrassment magnifies the need for that support, no matter how big the team.
“Every day after practice, we preach family,” Northwestern senior co-captain Aiden Bannerman said. “Nobody else in the school works as hard as we do.”
Multiply that need for support and inner strength by whatever factor you like for senior co-captain Lily Schwartz, one of four girls on the Highlander roster.
“It’s all about passion,” said Schwartz, a four-year wrestler whose older brothers found glory in the sport and whose father was a passionate wrestling coach at Northwestern.
“It doesn’t matter how many wrestlers a team has or how large it is,” Schwartz said. “They have to have passion. We wouldn’t show up every day if we didn’t.
“I read an article recently that said the overall number of high school wrestlers was declining, but the number of female wrestlers was increasing,” she continued. “Sometimes opponents underestimate me; sometimes they’re mad because they have to wrestle a girl. I just (to) wrestle.”
The necessary passion and the ecstasy or physical and mental agony available in the sport is part of its near-religion for adherents.
“We’re just glad to compete with everyone we put on the mat,” said Bears assistant coach Jim Cunningham, who came out of retirement after 25 years as Crusader head coach and another 10 at Xavier to help former Holy Cross and UConn wrestler, now head coach John Vasorelli try to revive the Thomaston/Holy Cross program.
That same kind of passionate spark has ignited the Northwestern program.
“We’ve got a group of kids buying into the sport,” said co-coach Peter Folino, whose team boasts nine freshmen this year. “Ninety percent of them come ready to work. We’ve got first-year kids who lose every match and they come back ready to work all the harder.”
“It used to be that, for every 10 kids that came out, half of them would leave when they found out how hard the sport is,” co-coach Dan Langer said. “Nobody’s quit the team this year unless they were injured.”
The Highlander range goes from those freshmen losing their way to improvement through experience at Class L and LL mega-meets to sophomore Mikey Lytle, who began wrestling at age seven and went 30-3 last year at 195 pounds, including a second-place Class S finish and fifth in the State Open.
This year, Lytle is 23-0, and still working.
“He’s going to break lots of records before he’s through,” Folino said.
It’s easy to believe none of them do it without the kind of passion that forges an iron-clad family and ultimate victory, win or lose.