NFA returns to the top of ECC Division I wrestling standings

New London — The Norwich Free Academy wrestling team paid homage to its history over the weekend, hosting the inaugural Carl Snitkin Memorial Duals in honor of the program's legendary coach.

On Thursday, the Wildcats came prepared to make a little history of their own.

NFA won a dual meet against defending Eastern Connecticut Conference Division I champion New London 41-33, with both teams entering the matchup unbeaten in the division.

Now in first place in the division with one league meet remaining against East Lyme, NFA (16-8, 2-0) would win Divsion I should it finish ahead of New London at next week's ECC tournament at Fitch. New London can still forge a tie for the title by defeating the Wildcats at the ECC meet.

"A very young team. They've had their ups and downs. They've performed well and other days they haven't performed well," said NFA coach Steve Nelson, in his third season with the program. "But they've done a good job, no matter what, of coming in and working. It's nice to have a team that comes in and has a goal."

Nelson, a former assistant coach at Montville, has rebuilt the team, going from 4-12 in 2017 to 10-9 a year ago.

He suggested the recent tournament as a tribute to Snitkin and said he was amazed at how many people at the school got behind it, as well as the number of alumni who graced the stands. The Wildcats went 3-0 in the tournament, too, getting three wins apiece from Theran Vanase at 152 and Dominic Renfree at 132.

"They got an introduction to the rich and deep history," Nelson said of his athletes.

Against New London, Vanase again led the way, winning by technical fall in the second period to push the Wildcats out in front by a 30-21 margin. The Wildcats also got a pin from Zach Damboise at 160 pounds, a tech fall from Eric Plainbull at 170 and a major decision from Brandon Nieto at 138. NFA won three matches by forfeit.

New London started the night with a 15-0 lead. Kicking off the match at 220 pounds, Keeano Gonzalez scored a first-period pin for the Whalers (5-9, 2-1) and New London's Jadien Mackenzie edged Ruben Britos 3-2 at 285 to push the advantage to 9-0. Freshman Tristen Robledo-Thompson then added another first-period pin for New London at 106.

The Whalers, however, forfeited three of the next four matches and it was Nieto's major decision at 138 pounds which gave NFA the lead for good at 22-21.

In addition to Gonzalez and Robledo-Thompson, Naaji Powell-Keyton (126), Jacob Commander (182) and Teshua Williams (195) had pins for New London.

"I felt that we had the advantage; that's if everything went right," Nelson said of the matchup with the Whalers. "... We're in the driver's seat (for the ECC title). We have some talented kids."

As for Nelson's influence on the program, Vanase calls him "quirky, you can't take him seriously." Nelson doesn't disagree, preferring to keep things light with his wrestlers, while also demanding hard work.

"He's definitely a different coach," Vanase said. "He's a good coach. He looks out for all of us. He's a good guy. He knows what he's talking about."

v.fulkerson@theday.com

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