If there’s one thing in recent years that has become a winter tradition in the Hearst Connecticut Media region besides the unpredictable New England weather, it is the dominance of the high school wrestling teams.

All you have to do was look at the first state coaches’ poll of the season to see how much the balance of power tilts toward the western half of the state. The top seven spots in the poll, led by perennial power Danbury, consisted of regional teams. The rest of the top seven following Danbury in the poll were New Milford, Trumbull, Fairfield Warde, Newtown, New Fairfield and Foran.

“It’s says a lot about the talent in the FCIAC, SWC and this side of the state,” said Fairfield Warde coach Jason Shaughnessy, who has been coaching the Mustangs since 1998, six years before Fairfield High was split into Warde and Ludlowe. “We are all pushing each other to get better all the time. Year in and year out there are lots of changes, but with the really good programs there’s not much fluctuation. The strong programs have excellent coaches, and even their down years are good.”

The teams in the poll have shifted during the past few weeks (Newtown has dropped out), but it would be hard to find a wrestling fan in the state that would argue that the best talent is consistently coming from the western half of the state. In fact, a lot of the best talent in all of New England is coming from this region.

“It’s become the toughest area in New England,” said legendary Mt. Anthony Union (Vermont) coach Scott Legacy, who has routinely produced one of the top teams in the Northeast for the past 30 years. “They have so many good teams with Danbury, New Milford and Warde leading the way. They are all following Danbury.”

The postseason begins next weekend with conference tournament,s and as the difficulty of tournaments increases each week, the top spots on the championship podium will most likely consist of wrestlers from this side of the state.

“I take pride at the level of wrestling going up,” said New Milford coach Chris Piel, who has guided the Green Wave for eight years after serving as an assistant coach for 10. “We are all pushing each other by raising the bar. I take a lot of pride seeing Danbury and Newtown guys doing well. The state is on the way up. If you make a soft schedule, your team will be soft. The cream rises to the top.”

Conquering greater challenges

It’s a great achievement to be the best in the state — Danbury has won a record 17 Class LL titles and an amazing 12 State Open titles since 2001. Warde has three Class L titles since 2006 and has finished second the past three years. New Milford has won four of the past five Class L crowns, while Newtown has stormed into the mix by winning two straight Class LL titles and its first State Open championship last year.

The bar has been pushed up higher and higher throughout the years led by a group of dedicated coaches, wrestlers and parents. No longer is a Connecticut wrestler viewed by opponents from other states as just another stepping stone in a weight bracket.

“The kids in Connecticut are a lot slicker now,” said 1995 Danbury High graduate Nam Tran, a former wrestler who has served as a high school referee for 15 years and has worked at both New Englands and Nationals. “They are using a lot more high-level moves. These kids go to a lot more offseason camps and training programs now. The level has definitely risen since I was in school.”

It’s not a surprise to track the results from big tournaments in the Northeast or nationally and find Connecticut wrestlers battling toward the finals or even walking off the mat as a champion. This season has seen Newtown’s Anthony Falbo (182), Warde’s Tim Kane (132) and Warde’s Charlie Kane (145) win titles at the George Bossi Holiday Tournament in Lowell, Mass., that featured 69 teams from the Northeast. Newtown finished second, the best finish for a Connecticut team, while Warde took seventh.

Danbury finished 10th at the prestigious Eastern States Classic in New York. Jakob Camacho (113) finished seventh to lead the Hatters in the tournament featuring 154 teams from six states and including 20 nationally-ranked wrestlers. Danbury’s Kyle Fields (130) and Peterson Souza (142) each went 4-2. Both New Milford’s Bryan Rojas (138) and Notre Dame of Fairfield’s Hakim Fleming (285) finished seventh.

“Not only is it not a surprise,” said Newtown coach Chris Brey of so many regional wrestlers placing high in out-of-state tournaments, “it’s an expectation of our guys eyeing the finals themselves. They are not satisfied just to place at New Englands, they want to win it. It’s a different mentality.”

Sure there once were glimpses of star power throughout the region that would thrive at the New England championships or the Nationals at the end of the year, but nothing compares to the sustained level and numbers shown in the past few years.

Danbury captured one of the the state’s two New England team title behind the star power of DeMaine Dillard and Jeff Vitti back in 1990 — Windham won the other crown in 1992. Individual stars such as New Fairfield’s Tom Serrano, Bethel’s Greg Pace, Shelton two-time winner Pat Gillen and two-time Danbury winners Charlie Costanzo and Kevin Jack have all shined at the New Englands, but now the winning waves seem to be getting bigger and closer together.

At last year’s New England championships, 14 regional wrestlers placed among the top six. There were two champions, four second-place finishers and three third-place finishers. All of a sudden, this tiny pocket of wrestling programs in western Connecticut has become a powerful force in New England.

“One big thing I notice about kids now in this area is that their wrestling IQ is through the roof,” said New Milford’s Piel. “Guys are watching videos now of the best wrestlers in the nation and learning more. They are even understanding referee tendencies. It’s a real science to winning. The intensity on the mat may not be higher than in the past, but the understanding of what’s going on is so high.”

Shook’s ‘Vision Quest

If there’s been one constant in the FCIAC and state wrestling scene throughout the past 20 years, it’s been the powerhouse Hatters. Danbury has won 28 of the past 29 FCIAC titles, with Warde winning the only other title in 2010.

Since 2000, coach Ricky Shook’s quest to make his team and the entire state better has been driven by his willingness to see his Hatters go against top talent in tournaments and dual meets outside of Connecticut. A 1983 Danbury High graduate and state champion, Shook was never content in having the Hatters be the big fish in a small pond.

“It never happened until 2000, really,” Shook said about looking to increase the strength of schedule with out-of-state opponents. “We went to a couple of out-of-state tournaments before in Lowell (Mass.) and New York, but nothing on a regular basis. We weren’t real competitive, but it was better competition than we would see in the state.”

“As a whole, our state and New England is so much stronger now,” Shook added. “Back when we started going to New York, a team of New York champs would blow out a team of New England champs in a dual meet. We would have probably been shut out. Now it would be a pretty even match.”

In 2000, Shook took one of the biggest steps forward for his program by setting up an annual home-and-away match with Legacy’s Mt. Anthony team. He also began getting another New England powerhouse, Timberlane (N.H.), on the Hatters’ schedule. Now those two New England powers have become a regular opponent for a number of the top teams in Connecticut.

And this season, the Hatters have shown their star ability by beating both Mt. Anthony and Timberlane in dual meets.

“Those were two programs I was trying to copy,” said Shook. “We needed to wrestle the best teams. I learned from Bob Serrano (the former New Fairfield and Brookfield coach, who is a member of the state wrestling hall of fame) that you have to find the hardest competition. Wins and losses don’t matter at the end. Bob made something out of nothing in New Fairfield, and that always impressed me. I always picked Bob’s brain for ideas and suggestions.”

The Hatters’ success has not gone unnoticed in New England.

“Ricky deserves all the credit,” said Legacy. “He approached me about wrestling us, and I have always been the kind to not turn down a challenge. They were on a huge win streak and we broke it. They could have stayed where they were, but he stepped outside the box. When you lose you have a little more fire in your eyes. I’ve had some elite guys only get better from losses.”

Being able to beat teams like Mt. Anthony — and see other schools like Warde and Newtown finish second and third, respectively, at the New Englands last year — all started with the Hatters taking their lumps against bigger fish during Shook’s early years.

“It was tough,” said Shook. “Kids would cry and parents’ egos took a hit. There were a lot of broken egos, but once they got to see the results all the way down on the program they loved it.”

Pride powers pins

There was once a lonely feeling for regional wrestlers going to big meets such as the New England championships or the Nationals in Virginia Beach at the end of the season. A Connecticut wrestler would not have too many other in-state athletes to mingle with during the competition, especially as the tournament advanced deeper into the championship brackets.

Times have changed, however. The numbers and success stories keep increasing, and more schools besides just the powerhouse programs are sending top wrestlers into big tournaments and watching them produce.

“We have a lot of pride being Connecticut guys,” said Tim Kane, who took third at last year’s New Englands. “We are all pushing for each other at the big tournaments. We want people to notice Connecticut.”

There is no more feeling overwhelmed or being intimidated.

“People realize we are there to kick butt,” said Charlie Kane, who won a New England title last year and is undefeated this season. “We have guys in Connecticut that are really pushing each other. We want to see other guys from around here do well.”

By the time New Englands and Nationals roll around in a few weeks, many of these top wrestlers will be practicing together and looking to share in each other’s glory.

“We expect to do well when we go to the big tournaments,” said Camacho, who finished third at New Englands last year as a freshman. “Most of us have been wrestling for a long time and expect to win.”

Can it last?

There is little concern that Danbury, Fairfield Warde and New Milford will maintain their dominance — they have done it for so many years with a foundation built on strong youth wrestling programs. Despite some low numbers at the varsity level this year, Newtown has built a solid youth program, according to Brey, and should be able to remain a strong title contender for years to come.

“You are seeing so many kids in general coming into the high schools with so much experience already,” said Brey, who has coached in the youth programs in both Newtown and Danbury. “All of the top teams have great youth programs feeding varsity-ready talent when they get to high school. Nobody is starting with a blank canvas in high school. You have to have the youth program to get to the next level. If you have the coaching, parental support and desire, anybody in the state can do it.”

Other teams such as Trumbull, Shelton, Foran, New Fairfield and Fairfied Ludlowe continue to produce top wrestlers every year who are not only among the best in the state, but are bringing home medals from regional tournaments.

“With us, New Milford and Warde, we have all been in the top-5 in the state for 10 years,” said Shook. “It’s because of the coaches doing the right thing. I’ve coached Shaughnessy’s kids and he has done the same for me. I’ve coached Piel’s kids at the Nationals before. We all help each other. Danbury and New Milford go to the same spot in Virginia Beach for the Nationals every year. We are all doing things to make us better.”

The ability for all the top coaches to share ideas and work together has allowed the regional dominance to grow to the level it is at now.

“I’m glad we can get great matches right on this side of the state now,” said Shook. “I get along with everybody. Sure, I don’t like losing, but I love how good all the teams around us have become. I have become really good friends with a lot of these coaches. We are all willing to help each other.”

jsonski@newstimes.com; @JasonSonski