The Whalers cer­tainly rose to the oc­ca­sion

New London crowned three cham­pi­ons at ECC tour­ney

The Day - - SPORTS - By NED GRIF­FEN Day Sports Writer

Gro­ton — New London coach Mike Gor­ton be­lieved it was re­al­is­tic that his team could pro­duce three in­di­vid­ual cham­pi­ons at the East­ern Con­necti­cut Con­fer­ence wrestling tour­na­ment.

Years ago, the thought the Whalers could be that suc­cess­ful would've been a fan­tasy.

The Whalers did end up with three in­di­vid­ual cham­pi­ons — se­nior Ja­cob Com­man­der (182 pounds) and sopho­mores Naaji Pow­ell-Keyton (120) and Ja­dien Macken­zie (220). It's the most cham­pi­ons New London has had dur­ing Gor­ton's seven years.

New London also earned a share of the ECC Di­vi­sion I ti­tle with Nor­wich Free Academy. The Whalers won it out­right last sea­son.

“We've got a great coach­ing staff,” Gor­ton said. “We've got a lot of guys out ev­ery year that makes for some good, live brawl­ing. I counted up with (Water­ford) coach (Chris) Gam­ble the other day, we had 16 guys come out be­tween the weights 182 and 220.

“I don't know, man. I just try to make it fun. We stick to­gether. It's just a re­ally good group kids this year and ev­ery year. I love them.”

Con­sider, too, that guys like Com­man­der and Macken­zie never wres­tled un­til they got to high school. Com­man­der fin­ished third at 152 pounds at the 2016 Class M tour­na­ment, was the 2017 Class L run­ner-up at 160, and won the Class M 195-pound ti­tle last sea­son.

Com­man­der won all three of his matches by pin over the week­end, in­clud­ing his cham­pi­onship win over Water­ford's Jack­son Harsh­berger in 5 min­utes, 29 sec­onds. It was just one of three pins in the fi­nal round, and it was Com­man­der's third ECC ti­tle.

“His fresh­man year, he was like 36-14 and we're like, ‘what?!',” Gor­ton said. “It comes back to his com­pet­i­tive­ness. He was beat­ing kids who he had no busi­ness beat­ing just be­cause he has this drive. Even when he's tired, he wants to keep win­ning.”

Macken­zie ben­e­fit­ted from be­ing taught by two coach­ing staffs. He was coached by Steve Bil­heimer as a Led­yard fresh­man last sea­son and fin­ished fifth at 195 pounds at the ECCs. He moved to New London this school year.

“My team made me bet­ter,” Macken­zie said. “Jake (Com­man­der) helps me with my tech­nique. He makes me so much bet­ter, him and Gor­ton. My Led­yard coaches, they helped me out a lot, too.”

Macken­zie was the top seed and beat Gris­wold's Cory Carr 8-0 in the fi­nal.

“I'm as­ton­ished (to win an ECC ti­tle),” he said.

Pow­ell-Keyton had wres­tled be­fore he got to New London. He was seeded sec­ond at 120 and beat top-seeded Brae­den O'Brien of Ba­con Academy 11-5 in the fi­nal.

“I had to def­i­nitely work on my stamina (in high school),” Pow­ell-Keyton said. “Wrestling is very tir­ing. … You have to make sure you're in con­trol. It def­i­nitely helps in real-life sit­u­a­tions.

•••• Rich Bowen has coached Killingly for 33 sea­sons, and he be­lieves he's ma­tured with age.

“I want to say (it hap­pened) when I was 50, but my wife might tell you some­thing dif­fer­ent,” Bowen laughed.

Bowen coached Killingly to its sec­ond straight ECC tour­ney ti­tle on Satur­day. The cham­pi­onship hap­pened a week af­ter he won his 600th match, join­ing Derby's Buster Jadach as the only wrestling coaches in state high school his­tory to reach that mark, ac­cord­ing to the Con­necti­cut High School Wrestling Record Book.

“He's al­ways there (for us),” said Killingly's Derek Turner, the 170-pound cham­pion. “Week­ends, he's al­ways help­ing us. When we're lift­ing, he's al­ways there. I think his love for the sport is the big­gest part (of his suc­cess).”

At a time when coaches are burn­ing out faster, Bowen is still en­joy­ing him­self.

“I think it's due to the fact that, first, I have good coaches and help,” Bowen said. “The par­ents are great. My wife (Linda) is awe­some, too. She knows this is what I do and she re­ally helps out a lot. I think with the fam­i­lies that help and the fam­ily at home and the kids, it's still fun.

“I don't take it as se­ri­ous any­more, ei­ther. When I was younger, I'd al­ways be yelling and scream­ing. We just take it as it comes nowa­days. Do your best out there and just keep get­ting bet­ter. … You've got to en­joy it. We have a lot more fun now than we ever had work­ing with the kids, the teach­ing and stuff. I just take it as fun. We work hard, but we try to keep it light and do what we need to do.”

Killingly will be among the fa­vorites to win the CIAC Class M ti­tle this week­end.

•••• Montville se­nior Zack Navar­rete could al­most smell blood dur­ing his 160-pound cham­pi­onship match.

The match had to be stopped twice be­cause Led­yard's Bray­den Grim had a nose­bleed.

The sec­ond time, Bil­heimer wrapped tape across Grim's nose and around his head a few times, mak­ing Grim look like he was wear­ing a mummy's starter kit.

Navar­rete won 9-5 for his first ECC ti­tle.

“I kind of felt like I had the ad­van­tage be­cause I know he's feel­ing some­thing (un­com­fort­able) that's both­er­ing him,” Navar­rete said. “So I know I can take ad­van­tage of my smarts be­cause the kid wants to get the match over with be­cause I've been in that sit­u­a­tion.”

Navar­rete was the top seed at 160 pounds and the lone cham­pion for Montville, which fin­ished fourth (161 points) and locked up the ECC Di­vi­sion III ti­tle.

“(An ECC ti­tle) was one of my goals,” he said. “I knew it was go­ing to be a tough road, but I got here, right?”

•••• Led­yard se­nior Tyler Miller be­lieved he could wear down NFA's Do­minic Ren­free in the 132-pound fi­nal.

Time was run­ning out for Miller to make his move, how­ever, as his match was score­less with un­der a minute left, and he had yet to fight his way free of Ren­free's clutches af­ter elect­ing to take the down po­si­tion to start the third pe­riod.

Miller fi­nally es­caped with 35 sec­onds left for his first points and won 6-0 with a take­down and two-point near fall. He was the lone cham­pion for the Colonels, who fin­ished third (175).

“That was one of the tough­est matches all year, man,” Miller said. “I knew he was go­ing to get gassed in the third pe­riod, so I wanted to draft him out a lit­tle bit. He's a lot stronger than I am. It felt like he comes out re­ally strong.

“I knew if I dragged him to the third pe­riod, he'd get tired.”

That plan aside, how was Miller feel­ing late in a score­less match.

“I was pretty god-dan­ged ner­vous,” Miller laughed.

•••• Fitch se­nior Austin Robert­son knew op­po­nents would be more mo­ti­vated to wres­tle him this sea­son af­ter he won an ECC ti­tle last sea­son. It didn't bother Robert­son. “I kind of grew up a lit­tle bit and ma­tured a lit­tle bit,” Robert­son said. “I know people are gun­ning for me, and I'm gun­ning for people.”

Robert­son beat Water­ford's Eric Zane 7-4 in the 138-pound fi­nal for his sec­ond straight ti­tle. There were a few tough mo­ments, but Robert­son wasn't rat­tled.

“I was pretty con­fi­dent,” he said. “I mean, get­ting your­self worked up only hurts you, so I try to stay calm (and) trust my wrestling.”

•••• Jack­son Harsh­berger didn't win an ECC ti­tle, but he was one of the tour­na­ment's best sur­prises and helped Water­ford to a sec­ond-place fin­ish.

Harsh­berger, seeded sixth at 182, pinned No. 3 Leonardo Amaro Jr. of Ba­con Academy in the quar­ter­fi­nals. He then edged No. 2 Stephen Sims of Gris­wold 11-9 in the quar­ter­fi­nals be­fore los­ing to Com­man­der in the fi­nal.

“We were ex­cited (for him),” Lancers head coach Chris Gam­ble said. “He wres­tled some tough kids, I think some kids that had beat him last year, so he was ex­cited to get to the fi­nals.

“His style is kind of let-it-go, and we said, ‘hey, this is the per­fect (op­por­tu­nity). You're wrestling Ja­cob Com­man­der who is one of the best in New Eng­land. Go out there and let it rip.' And I'm re­ally happy for him.” •••• All four CIAC wrestling class tour­na­ments are Fri­day and Satur­day.

The host sites are Trum­bull (Class LL), Bris­tol Cen­tral (L), Guil­ford (M),

and Wind­ham (S). The break­down for ECC teams is as fol­lows: Class LL: NFA. Class L: Fitch, New London. Class M: Ba­con Academy, East Lyme, Killingly, Led­yard, Ly­man Me­mo­rial/Wind­ham Tech, St. Bernard/ Nor­wich Tech, Water­ford.

Class S: Gris­wold, Montville, Ston­ing­ton, Wind­ham. n.grif­[email protected]­day.com

DANA JENSEN/THE DAY

New London’s Naaji Pow­ell-Keyton, top, and Ba­con Academy’s Brae­den O’Brien battle dur­ing the ECC wrestling tour­na­ment 120-pound fi­nal on Satur­day at Fitch High School in Gro­ton.

DANA JENSEN/THE DAY

Led­yard’s Tyler Miller, right, and NFA’s Do­minic Ren­free wres­tle dur­ing the ECC tour­na­ment 132-pound fi­nal on Satur­day in Gro­ton.

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