ECC championship wrestling notebook: Whalers rose to the occasion

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.griffen@theday.com

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