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Eagles move up as wrestling opens

Today marks opening day of the 2013-14 wrestling season for five local Division III programs, and all are itching to get onto the mat.

Due to realignment, largely designed to improve competitive balance across the valley, this year will look somewhat different from seasons past. Franklin County Technical School — which finished second to Dean Technical High School in the Tri-County League last year — moves up to the Suburban League and will face the challenge of new and talented competition. Dean Tech also moved to the SL, as did Hampshire Regional High School.

The TCL League will now feature Athol High School, Frontier Regional School, Mahar Regional School, Pioneer Valley Regional School, Pathfinder Vocational High School, Belchertown High School and South Hadley High School.

The new Suburban League includes Franklin Tech, Dean Tech, Hampshire, Gateway Regional High School, Granby High School, Sabis International Charter School and Southwick-Tolland Regional High School.

Frontier, which placed fourth in the TCL last season will feature a first-year head coach and a balanced and motivated roster. Athol (fifth in TCL), looks to improve results this year with a mix of young talent and returning veterans. Pioneer Valley Regional School (last in TCL) is struggling to field a team, and now has only a roster of eight, with no seniors, one junior, one freshmen, and six middle school wrestlers.

Rounding out the local five is Mahar Regional School, a first-year varsity program that is looking to be competitive in the new-look TCL. It will be interesting to see how the Senators — and the TCL as whole — develop this year.

Four of the five local teams open up today at the Red Raider Invitational Tournament, hosted by Athol High School. Pioneer opens its season Wednesday night at Frontier.

Here is a closer look at each of the local teams:

FC Tech

It’s been rare for local teams to move up a level in wrestling, but that is exactly what the Eagles have undertaken this season. The move is largely due to the fact that competition in the TCL had become lopsided, with many of the teams having trouble filling all 14 weight classes. For the Eagles, who carry a roster of 24 and have representation in all classes, the move makes a lot of sense.

“Over the past several years in the TCL, there have been a lot of teams that can’t fill out all the weight classes and struggle to win.” said Eagles ninth-year head coach Joe Gamache.”There were instances that our team could have lost every match we wrestled and still come out with a team win due to forfeits. By moving up, our team record may suffer, but that’s fine. It will give all of the kids a chance to wrestle, and that will be a true test for us. Forfeit wins look good on paper, but don’t give a true measure of a team, and don’t provide the athlete a true opportunity to compete.”

Overall, Gamache believes that the move up is a positive one for his program, and the Eagles are looking forward to the transition.

Eagles senior Kyle Laffey, who last year was the runner-up in the 160-pound weight class in both the Western Massachusetts Division III Tournament and Massachusetts Division III State Tournament leads the way for the Tech. Junior Brett Bean (145) finished strong last year and is a hard worker and team leader, will also bear watching. Seniors Jonathan Rawls and Tyler Rock are also expected to be valuable contributors at 220 and 120, respectively.

Frontier

In the first season in which program founder and longtime head coach Don Gordon will not be involved in the program’s day to day operations, the Red Hawks welcome first-year head coach Cody Wilson to the fold. Wilson, a 2009 Pioneer graduate who also coached the Panthers’ 2011-12 squad, is excited for the upcoming season and the future of Frontier wrestling in general.

“This team is the fullest, most complete wrestling team I’ve been a part of.” said Wilson, a volunteer coach last year for the Red Hawks. “We have about a 50-50 split between returning veterans and new, younger kids. I think I’m in the right place at the right time, as we have a lot of strength in both areas. I’ve been really surprised with the strength and motivation of the middle school kids, and we look forward to being a very competitive program this year, and setting things up for years to come.”

As complete as the team seems to be to Wilson, there are a few holes. The Hawks do not have wrestlers to compete at 182, 220 or 285 (heavyweight). On the flip side, Frontier features five young wrestlers — four of which are middle schoolers — at 106.

“It would be nice to fill out all of the classes, but we won’t be the only team without bigger guys. We are in a very good position overall. It’s exciting to think that kids who will contribute this year will be around and continuing to do so for as long as five more years.”

This year, look for junior Ben McGranaghan and seniors Jake Arnold and Kirby Compton to set the tone for the Red Hawks. McGranaghan, who will wrestle at 113, has the potential to be dominant in the TCL. Arnold will jump up two weight classes from 138 to 152, and Compton will move up one, from 160 to 170. Wilson expects both to transition to their new classes seamlessly.

Athol

The Red Raiders will feature a young team, but 12th-year head coach Phil Saisa is optimistic for the future, both short and long term.

“We’re very excited for the season. We’re very young, and our expectations are not super high as far as wins and losses, but we have a very positive outlook. We are rebuilding with a good number of young guys. We only have nine high school guys, and 16 of our wrestlers are in either eighth or ninth grade.” said Saisa.

When asked if he thought realignment would achieve the goal of bringing about a more competitive league, Saisa answered in the affirmative.

“The league doesn’t really have that one team to beat this year, so it should mean that we’ll be competitive in our league matches. Wrestling is different than other sports in that we only see our league opponents once, though, and we will face a lot of tough competition from outside. Given where we are in the development of the program, we’d be ecstatic with a .500 record.” he said.

A more competitive league will re-enforce the team concept in the sport as well.

“While wrestling is largely an individual sport, we preach the team aspect every day. If we are competitive in our league matches, it illustrates how much a maximum effort given in an individual match can matter to the team overall. A pin or a major win can make all the difference between winning or losing on a team level.”

Individually, junior Trevor Carey (132) and freshman Merrick Decker (113) appear poised to make some noise in their respective weight classes for the Red Raiders.

Pioneer

The Panthers have an uphill battle to say the least. An already undersized and undermanned squad, Pioneer lost six wrestlers from last season, including three graduates, and three who did not return. This leaves a squad of only eight, within seven weight classes. Of the eight wrestlers currently on the roster, only two are high schoolers, junior Trey Raymond (195) and freshman Trevor Tefft (145). Of the remaining six, four are eighth-graders and two are seventh-graders.

“We’re tiny. Tiny roster, tiny in size, and very inexperienced.” said head coach Kevin McKeown. “Given our numbers, we will not be able to compete this year on the team level, but it’s our goal to go out and win 75 percent of the individual matches we do wrestle. We have a couple of new coaches that will work closely with the wrestlers we do have and bring the most out of them.”

McKeown reacted quite positively when asked about the sustainability of the program in future years.

“Yes, we absolutely will be able to sustain the program,” he said. “We are working hard to recruit more students, I am a teacher at the school as well as a coach, and there’s no way we’re going to let the program go.”

Given that Pioneer wrestling has a long history off success, and that McKeown is on a mission to rebuild and restore it to its former level, don’t be surprised to see the Panthers become a factor in the TCL a few years down the road.

Mahar

As with any first year varsity program, the Senators’ success won’t primarily be judged by their record. Second-year coach John Speek, who led Mahar through a JV schedule last season, traveling around and wrestling anyone who would take them on, can not wait to get the Senators’ inaugural TCL season underway.

Speek, a 1994 graduate of Valley Regional High School in Deep River, Conn., was a captain on the wrestling team, and he was also an assistant coach in Everett for two years before he began teaching at Mahar. His love for the sport has never waned.

“I haven’t slept since mid-October.” said Speek. “I’m just so excited for the season. I’ve been an English teacher at Mahar for 10 years, and just sort of waiting in the wings, hoping the day would come that a varsity wrestling program here would be a reality. I’m very thankful for being given the opportunity to get the program off the ground.”

As far as the team goes, Speek is thrilled with where they are going into the season, and even more than that, thrilled to begin competing.

“We’ve got a lot of solid wrestlers, and more than 20 kids at practice every day. We have a few holes, we’re empty at 113, 120, 126 and either at 220 or heavyweight (285), depending on which direction we go. We feel like we are sort of a wildcard this year, no one knows what to expect from us, including us. It’s just going to be great just to be in the scramble.”

For Speek and the Senators, any success they have on the mat this season is a bonus.

“We’ve got no expectations, and every win will be a surprise. We’re just going to go out every time and compete to the best of our ability. For this team, this year, it’s all about being a brotherhood, a family. I believe in developing the whole kid, not just the athlete.”

Speek is particularly excited about his junior co-captains, Isaac Fortner (182) and Aaron Briggs (195). Not only are they tough wrestlers who will lead by example on the mat, they are leaders off it as well.

“Both captains gave speeches after practice today, and the response from the team was tremendous. These kids are committed not only to wrestling and the team, but also to each other. It’s a great starting point.” said Speek.

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