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New Season, Big Challenges for Local Wrestling Programs

December 4, 2018

Every wrestling season brings new challenges and changes for teams.

No one knows that more than Nashoba Regional head coach Pete Connery as he deals with the loss of possibly the greatest wrestler in school history in Lucas Cordio -- a four-time sectional champion, three-time Division 2 state champion, all-state champion and New England champion. This year the Chieftains will not only be without Cordio, but also several other established stars lost to graduation.

The departures aren’t changing any attitudes for Connery and his squad, as they aim to continue their tradition of success.

“We lose seven starters from last year whole all played a major role in our success,” Connery said. “We had our highest finish in New England ever (seventh), so to replace that, it’s difficult, but we have a group of hard-working kids who have been waiting to step in as starters behind a really talented group of graduates.

“So I think it will be interesting to see how we do as a team come the end of the season. We will not have all the big names filling the lineup, but we will have kids who work hard and may surprise some people come tournament time.”

Despite the changing roster, the Chieftains still have an impressive group ready for the winter season.

“We will led by New England place-winner Brevin Cassella and senior captains Alex Childs and Vinny King,” Connery said. “We do have good wrestlers and, more importantly, good people for the young guys to look up to, and I see that as a major part of the sport.”

Nashoba isn’t the only team dealing with the graduation of key seniors. Monty Tech will have to replace four-year starter and captain Isaiah Williamson, while Leominster will look to move on from team captain and sectional place-winner Cashman Dobbs.

While both of those teams’ coaches understand there’s a lot of work ahead for their squads, they’ve also both been in similar situations before.

“Williamson, his leadership will be greatly missed,” Monty Tech head coach Kieron Smith said. “This sport tends to find leaders in the strangest of places.

“I expect heart and drive, and I will except nothing less if you want to be a captain. The next couple weeks will decide that for us.”

Leominster head coach James Sheehan was excited about the change to see his young athletes grow into their new roles.

“Every year we lose kids who are leaders on the team, so this is nothing new to deal with,” he said. “Cashman was certainly an integral part of the team and will be missed, but the young kids are eager to step into his shoes and fill the role. I have a good group of kids coming back, so I think we are in good shape to start this season.”

Despite the loss of Dobbs, Sheehan was confident that other stars would be able to fill the role he left.

“I expect Anthony Larson and Zach Khallady to build off of the success from last year,” Sheehan said. “I’m also hoping for good seasons out of returners Dorian Delgado and Andres Crespo, and hoping that some of the younger kids make the leap this year.”

Losing talent to graduation is just part of the job, the coaches know. It’s also just one concern among many that wrestling squads face each season.

“The challenges, for the most part, are the same year in and year out,” Sheehan said. “We really have a tough time getting a lot of kids to wrestle, and (retaining) those who show up those first couple of practices. So getting and maintaining numbers is always a priority for me, but I have been more than happy to go to work with the loyal few that stick out the entire season.

“I frequently have kids on the team who have never wrestled before -- I think only two kids had more than a year of experience last year -- so it can be a little difficult to get them caught up to speed and ready to wrestle by the first meet.”

For at least one school in the area, new is better. Thanks to the Fitchburg Youth Wrestling program, Monty Tech looks to have a couple of contenders this year. As a way to get kids started early in the sport and learning the fundmentals, Fitchburg Youth Wrestling has been a blessing for the Bulldogs, Smith said.

“Rudy Paulino, John Wiebe and their coaching crew develop these young kids to be ready for this level of wrestling,” he said. “We will have some good kids from the youth program. Isiac Paulino, a freshman at 106 pounds, I’ve watched Isiac grow. Little man on a mat. He’s hungry and loves this sport.

“Xavian Natal, another freshman at 120 pounds, he’s hungry and always smiles.”

Smith explained how a talented group of new wrestlers can have a positive impact on Monty Tech’s veterans, as well, giving the older athletes better competition in practice to help them reach their full potential.

“Christian Colon, he’s a junior at 126 pounds,” Smith said. “He’s not from our feeder program, but (this is) his first full season. With the youth and experience around him, it should be an interesting next couple seasons. ... Returners Brent Landry (182/195 pounds) and Jay LeBlanc (160/170), both juniors, should have a good season for us.”

The Bulldogs, however, also face their share of adversity this year, as they will no longer be a co-op program with wrestlers from Fitchburg High School.

“We lose Fitchburg High as a co-op,” Smith said. “This unfortunate circumstance takes several starters out of our lineup. With a very young team, these wrestlers will be missed to the highest level.

“I’ve watched kids in the youth program work hard for many years now, wanting to wrestle at the high school level with an edge, with experience. Wrestling is something that all kids should do. It builds a sense of worth, humbles them and builds them up. It’s important for these kids to be on the mat to develop the skills needed to be successful at this sport, both for them and the new wrestlers.

“With that said, it is unfortunate that several of these young athletes have had this opportunity taken away. Just like any other extra activity that keeps these kids productive and off the streets, these opportunities should not be taken away. I’m disappointed. Not just wrestling was taken away from these kids, but a way of life.”

The decision has left four potential wrestlers for the Monty Tech program without a team, three of whom were starters last season and a fourth who has wrestled through the Fitchburg Youth program and was looking forward to wrestling on the team this year as a freshman, Smith said.

All three local programs are scheduled to open their season on Saturday. Monty Tech will travel to Athol High for the annual Red Raider Invitational. Nashoba will go to a quad meet comprised of Cumberland, Rhode Island, and North Shore teams Reading and Lawrence. Leominster, meanwhile, will head to a quad at sectional opponent Lincoln-Sudbury, where the Blue Devils will also see sectional opponent Brookline and Mansfield.

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