The Middletown Press (Middletown, CT)
RHAM wrestling the state champion that wasn’t after penalty
Ryan Fitch said Michael Marques didn’t particularly want to wrestle this winter.
“He wrestled a little bit last year and he didn’t really have it in him to wrestle,” the RHAM coach said. “He’s a football guy.
“About three weeks ago, he comes to me. We’re talking about the states and he said, ‘Coach, the only reason I did this was to win you a state championship.’”
So there they were before the 195-pound finals late Saturday afternoon at the Class M championship inside Jonathan Law High School.
Avon and RHAM were locked in a tense two-way battle for the title. Fitch, who had the math figured out, looked Marques in the eye and said: “Michael, remember you told me two-three weeks ago about winning the state championship. You pin. We win it.”
By now, in the retelling, Fitch was choking back his emotion.
Marques raced to a 6-1 lead before getting the six points for pinning East Haven’s Jason Toth in 3:34.
“He pinned the kid,” Fitch said. “We won the state championship. My team celebrated.”
Only RHAM didn’t win the state championship. Avon did by a half-point, 196½-196, because of an automatic one-point penalty to RHAM for unsportsmanlike conduct.
Buckle in for this one. Dylan Collar, who had been seeded 17th and rallied to finish fourth at 160 pounds, had pulled the straps of his singlet down and was bare-chested as he celebrated Marques’ state-clinching victory with his teammates on the edge of the mat.
Really, that’s it.
You think the defensive holding call on the Eagles’ James Bradberry that decided the Super Bowl was ticky-tack? It was an egregious penalty compared to this.
There may never have been a crazier way to lose a state title.
It’s heartbreaking. It’s outrageous. It’s one of the worst cases of an official going out of his way to be self-important in state history.
Yes, the unsportsmanlike call is an automatic deduction. But the call itself was made by an official who pushed the term “excessively rule-bound” to new dimensions.
Collar, whose foot brushed
the outer circle during the team celebration, didn’t run to the center of the ring and rip his singlet off. He didn’t showboat. He didn’t taunt. There was little room between the mat and the bleachers. As Marques wrestled, Collar and some teammates had gathered behind Fitch. After the pin, the others came from the bleachers. Marques’ hand was raised in victory. He went over to shake hands with the Avon coaches.
As Marques returned to the RHAM side outside the circle, Fitch jumped into his arms. Everyone else followed to hug him on the edge of the mat. That’s when the official who had raised Marques’ arm in victory spotted Collar among the throng.
He walked toward the celebration, following the group and repeatedly pointing. He walked to the scoring table, clearly delivering his ruling.
“I found out about two minutes afterward,” Fitch said. “My assistant coach knew right away. He said the ref was like, ‘What weight is that guy?’ I thought it was for excessive celebration.
“My kid is on the edge of the mat with 20 other people. And the ref’s chasing him down to find out what weight class he is, so he can bang him. I don’t want the refs to know the score. But you still have to have a sense that someone is going to win a state championship. That kids have worked many years for this. As long as you’re not showing up your opponent, which we clearly didn’t. We weren’t delaying anything. It was just pure celebration for less than a minute.”
Fitch said when he initially spoke to Carmen Delvecchio, the co-head official at the tournament, and he was left with the impression the penalty would not be enforced.
“Carm said he wasn’t going to allow it to happen,” Fitch said. “That’s not how we’re going to do this. I was like alright. We’re going to get the point back. I go back to our fans. ‘We’re going to get the point back.’”
Chances at picking up more points at 220 pounds had earlier gone by the wayside when No. 5 seed Patrick Dunko succumbed to knee problems.
“He came back from
knee surgery about a month ago,” Fitch said. “He lost last year because he blew his knee out. First week of the season, blew it out again. He fought all the way to come back, had the 5-seed and blew it out again right before placing rounds.”
Avon already was finished before 195 pounds. RHAM had one more match at heavyweight (285). Sean Martin of Weston beat RHAM sophomore Thiago Delacruz, 9-4.
“My kid is young, only about 220 pounds,” Fitch said.
It was only after the final match did Fitch say he officially get the news that the point had been deducted.
“I was told this is the way it’s going to be,” he said. “I had no appeal process. What am I going to do now? I went to the head table. They told me once it was entered there’s nothing that can be changed. By the time that the (heavyweight) match was over all the refs were gone. I’m not chasing them into the locker room. I did call Carmen. He wasn’t happy with the call. He also didn’t overturn it.
“A lot of people told me the way I handled it was amazing. I didn’t go crazy. But, man, it hurt.”
Here’s how the 2022-23 NFHS Wrestling Rule Book, Rule 7, Section 4, Article 2 reads: “Unsportsmanlike conduct involves physical or nonphysical acts and they can occur before, during or after a match. It includes, but is not limited to, such acts as … (a bunch of things are mentioned before) failure to keep shoulder straps up while on the mat ...”
“It’s vague,” Fitch said. “Is someone who wrestled 15 minutes ago still a contestant?”
Beyond the fine print, where are the finer points of competitive fairness? This screams a total lack of common sense.
“It goes without saying, we are upset for our student-athletes, coaches and wrestling families,” athletic director Dan Trudeau replied if RHAM would file some sort of protest with the CIAC. “We’re respectfully waiting to further discuss our displeasure and dispute of the decision.
“I’ve been informed by a CIAC staff member that our coach’s attempt to appeal was denied because the rule in question was violated and the referee was within his power to do so.”
All Saturday night, all Sunday Fitch got calls and emails. College and high school coaches. The school district superintendent. Fitch said other state coaches were upset by it.
“Going in, I thought it had been our tournament to lose,” Fitch said. “I think we had the best team. We told the kids all year that if we did our job, we would walk away with a state championship. A few guys did not wrestle to our expectation, which caused it to be a lot closer than what it should have been.
“To be honest, Avon outwrestled us during the tournament. They definitely were the secondbest team. We have very good relations with them. I know that wasn’t the way they wanted to win.”
The last time RHAM won a state wrestling title was 2002. Fitch was an assistant. He says he will coach one more year before he retires. The hours. The sweat. The care for the kids … he came back to Collar.
“He had only been wrestling for like three weeks,” Fitch said. “It took me four years of working with him to try to get his grades up to become part of this team.
“I sat with him before the season to go over what he needed to do. We didn’t get his grades up. Near the end of the season, (after the following marking period), he did. He gets rewarded by being part of the championship team.”
The state championship team that wasn’t. A victory for student-athleticism turned into a loss for common sense and a mockery of competition.
“I want to win,” Fitch said. “I want a state championship on my resume. When we talked a little as a team, I said I hope we learn every point counts. It was our tournament to lose. Only we didn’t lose it. It was taken away from us.
“We’re going to have another talk to reinforce the work we put in, all the way to down to the youth levels. This hurts. I’m not lying, all year we talked about the state championship and how it never can be taken away once you get it.”
Ryan Fitch forced a laugh through his heartache.
He knows his team has been the victim of the biggest, saddest joke in CIAC wrestling history.