Bilheimer's quiet confidence keys Ledyard's success
Ledyard — Same as he always does, Steve Bilheimer blew a whistle Monday to begin the first week of Ledyard High School wrestling practice for the postseason and proceeded to go over a few bullet items.
Every little thing matters. You have to suck it up and wrestle back, even if you're disappointed with a loss. If we wrestle hard Friday and Saturday, we can still win the Eastern Connecticut Conference Division I title.
The venue, the dimly lit, exceedingly stuffy Rod Leyland Wrestling Room in the basement of the school, once and forever known as “the bomb shelter,” is always the same. The words are, too, whether they have been delivered in one of the Colonels' 23 state championship seasons, the most in Connecticut history, or a more average one.
Bilheimer, in his 15th season coaching at Ledyard and a finalist this season for the National High School Athletic Coaches' Association Wrestling Coach of the Year honor, is one constant his wrestlers know they can count on. His boss, too.
“He's like the key diplomat of Ledyard High School,” Ledyard principal Amanda Fagan said recently. “Whenever there's a tricky task, we ask him to do it. Who can lead this wrestling empire? Bilheimer. Who can be the boys' lacrosse coach when we need one? Bilheimer. Who can pick up the (athletic director) responsibilities? Bilheimer. Who do we need to chair this committee? Bilheimer.”
“Even if he wasn't my wrestling coach, the way he carried himself ...” said 2016 Ledyard graduate Daric Johnson, a former three-time individual state champion with the Colonels. “Even kids that don't even play a single sport will say good things about Bilheimer. I can't remember exactly who said it, 'A good coach improves your game. A great coach improves your life.' If something big happens in my life, he's going to know about it. It's bigger than wrestling.”
Bilheimer first coached the Ledyard wrestling program from the 2001-02 season to 2007-08, winning four state championships, five ECC Large Division titles in a row and four league tournament titles in that seven-year span.
He gave up the job for two seasons, coaching the middle school program in town, before returning to the top spot for the 2010-11 season. The Colonels have added five more state championships to their total in the seven seasons since then, including the 2017 Class S title.
That gives Bilheimer nine state championships on his watch and a career record of 294-66, making him the winningest coach in a program steeped in history. Ledyard's 23 state titles is four more than second-place Danbury, which has 19.
The Colonels, 13-12 this season, begin competing in the ECC tournament at 5 p.m. Friday at Fitch High School. The finals are scheduled for 4:30 p.m. Saturday. Ledyard trails New London in the ECC Division I team standings, but can still clinch a title by outwrestling everyone in the division this weekend. That will be followed by the Class S championship meet Feb. 16-17 at Windham.
“Never the outside pressure. I don't allow it,” said Bilheimer, asked of the weight the expectations on the perennially successful program might carry. “I don't think anybody puts more pressure on me than me.
“It's a long season. Right now, the first-year kid is waiting to be done. The experienced kids are revving up. Hopefully I can amp them up for one more time, a few more times.”
Each year at the Connecticut State Open wrestling championship at the Floyd Little Athletic Center, the state's past Open champions who are in attendance are introduced, Bilheimer among them. Bilheimer was the 1992 State Open champion at 152 pounds, the first Open champ in the history of Somers High School.
“The biggest thing that helped me be a good wrestler is I was very focused,” Bilheimer said. “Some guys have a hard time paying attention. If someone was demonstrating a move, I would look at where the hand and leg placement was and I'd try to replicate it exactly.
“I was almost always pretty calm. I was fired up in my mind, but I was calm.”
He moved on to wrestle at Springfield College, where the team was ranked in the top 10 in Division III his junior and senior seasons. A member of the Class of 1997 following a redshirt year as a freshman, Bilheimer was a three-time Scholar All-American at Springfield and won the New England Wrestling Association title at 167 pounds as a senior.
He returned to Springfield as a graduate assistant for two seasons, during which time the program was also nationally ranked and which marked his first foray into coaching.
Bilheimer, who found success when he began wrestling in the eighth grade, said he takes the good and the bad from his own career and applies it to coaching.
This is wrestling, as described by Bilheimer, asked for a definition.
“Wrestlers are kind of a different breed,” Bilheimer said. “The contact is more than any other sport. You have to put yourself out there. With wrestling, it's pretty much all you. You win or you lose. It's more emotional when you lose (than other sports).
“You have to be able to put yourself out there and not be afraid of failure. It's a lot of physical punishment. I still wrestle with the guys on occasion. You really get into it; it's like people that go to CrossFit. That's what I miss, that feeling, the nice, physical tiredness.”
Still, as during his days as a wrestler, Bilheimer is fired up in his mind, but calm on the outside.
“Have I looked even-keeled?” Bilheimer asked with a laugh about the particular ups and downs of this season, which included a win over No. 9 Montville on opening day, but has featured its share of losses, too. “I kind of knew. With this team, we have a drop in experience, a drop in age and a little bit in athleticism. Most teams go through this from time-to-time.
“I was happy with them. People thought I'd be stressed out and angry.”
He said some coaches you will see screaming every second of every match, willing their wrestlers to victory. That's not him.
“Ask my wife; I'm not an emotional guy,” Bilheimer said. “My parents (Marvin and Rita) are the most laid back people on earth. … I love to win. I enjoy winning. I'm a competitive guy. But you do 80-90 percent of your coaching in practice. (During a match), I yell stuff I think is important.”
Bilheimer teaches health classes at Ledyard and is the chairman of the health, physical education, family and consumer science and technology education departments, as well as serving as assistant athletic director.
He is assisted on the mat by Allyn Quibble, a former two-time State Open champion at Ledyard; and Bill Glenney, the Colonels' boys' soccer coach.
He is assisted at home by wife Val, daughter Kylah, 13, and son Brady, 10, who will accompany Bilheimer to the awards dinner at the national coaches' convention this summer in Sioux Falls, S.D. The family lives in Montville.
This time of year, however, Bilheimer is the steward of the Ledyard wrestling program, which celebrated its 50th anniversary with a picnic this summer.
“He's a really good coach. He's trying to make me a better me,” said Ledyard senior Dennis Charles, who will be the ECC's top seed this weekend at 160 pounds. “He's trying to make us the best each and every day. He keeps a level head. Some coaches drill into you when you mess up; he likes to just talk to you.”
“He treats everyone the same. I think that's just Bilheimer,” said Ledyard senior Richard Mullaney, also the top seed this weekend at 285 pounds. “He'll stop and have a conversation with you. He makes it the player's decision. There's just a big camaraderie to it. I can say I'm a Ledyard wrestler. It gives us an edge.”
ECC WRESTLING TOURNAMENT
Following is the list of top four seeds for the 2018 Eastern Connecticut Conference wrestling tournament, which will be held Friday and Saturday at Fitch (see schedule below):
106 pounds — 1. Dan Charron (Killingly), 38-0; 2. Logan Smith (Waterford), 17-1; 3. Naaji Powell-Keyton (New London), 23-5; 4. Joey Millbach (Ledyard), 26-4.
113 — 1. Jarod Kosman (Fitch), 34-0; 2. Alejandro Garcia (Windham), 34-2; 3. Dave Charron (Killingly), 33-3; 4. J'Mari Lowman (Ledyard), 21-4.
120 — 1. Mike Charron (Killingly), 34-3; 2. Dominic Renfree (NFA), 37-4; 3. Kevin Fantoli (Windham), 20-5; 4. Eric Zane (Waterford), 24-5.
126 — 1. Jackson Archer (Lyman Memorial/Windham Tech), 24-5; 2. Sebastian Stultz (Windham), 30-4; 3. Sawyer Kury (Montville), 19-6; 4. Tyler Radack (Waterford), 16-9.
132 — 1. Noah Caskey (Montville), 36-0; 2. Luis Rodriguez (Windham), 25-8; 3. A.J. Sachatello (Waterford), 21-8; 4. Trevor Johnson (Killingly), 26-13.
138 — 1. Sam Burdick (Killingly), 30-8; 2. Jared Swett (LM/WT), 23-5; 3. Danny Castro (Windham), 11-3; 4. Sam Light (Stonington), 14-5.
145 — 1. Zack Burgess (Killingly), 32-3; 2. Jason Jacaruso (Griswold), 20-1; 3. Ian Anderson (Montville), 28-6; 4. Austin Robertson (Fitch), 23-9.
152 — 1. Sam Kury (Montville), 34-0; 2. Theran Vanase (NFA), 24-5; 3. Keith McDonald (Fitch), 21-8; 4. Ben Holden (Woodstock), 20-11.
160 — 1. Dennis Charles (Ledyard), 29-2; 2. Luther Wade (Waterford), 20-2; 3. Greg Gosselin (Killingly), 29-11; 4. Zak Navarette (Montville), 17-9.
170 — 1. Mason LaFlam (LM/WT), 26-1; 2. Derek Turner (Killingly), 35-2; 3. Luis Veras-Rodriguez (New London), 21-6; 4. Caleb Forehand (Montville), 26-7.
182 — 1. Zach Caffrey (Killingly), 35-1; 2. Dane Concascia (Montville), 21-0; 3. Xavier Alvarez (New London), 19-2; 4. Andrew Allen (Ledyard), 13-3.
195 — 1. Jacob Commander (New London), 20-1; 2. Joe Reihl (LM/WT), 25-4; 3. Johnny Falco (Griswold), 23-7; 4. Brandon Hamilton (Fitch), 15-6.
220 — 1. Dakota Grover (Fitch), 32-3; 2. Nick Tibbetts (Montville), 29-2; 3. Rene Bernier (Killingly), 30-9; 4. Noah Kimball (New London), 18-3.
285 — 1. Richard Mullaney (Ledyard), 28-3; 2. Roark Ryan (St. Bernard/Norwich Tech), 23-4; 3. Jaden Malave (Windham), 28-3; 4. Mike O'Connell (LM/WT), 20-7.
Friday — First round, 5 p.m.; championship quarterfinals and consolation first round, 6 p.m.; consolation second round, 7:30 p.m.
Saturday — Championship semifinals and consolation quarterfinals, 11 a.m.; consolation semifinals, 1:30 p.m.; consolation finals, 2:45 p.m.; championship finals, 4:30 p.m.