NMHS wrestling now in same league as Danbury
There's a debate raging amongst the scions of high school wrestling in Connecticut as to which team is the best in the state.
Danbury or New Milford? New Milford or Danbury?
The argument is ample fodder for punsters and might well serve as motivation to the talented and dedicated Green Wave and Hatter grapplers.
The state wrestling coaches' poll has waffled back and forth in its rankings of the two powers this winter.
I hold little regard for coaches' polls in such sports as football, basketball and baseball, in which top teams often never play each other and voters customarily don't see others compete. However, the state's elite in wrestling often do battle, lending more credence to such a poll.
What matters most, of course, is that for the first time in years there's actually a real debate over who's No. 1 in state wrestling.
Since before the current crop of NMHS and DHS athletes were even born, Danbury has reigned in the Fairfield County Interscholastic Athletic Conference and, with an iron grip, ruled the state wrestling world.
Not since Westport Staples was king of state soccer back in the 1960s and '70s under the guidance of legendary coach Albie Loeffler had there been such a run of success by one school in one sport.
That was, of course, until coach Chris Piel's Green Wave stunned the Hatters, 33-23, in a head-to-head December battle that snapped Danbury's incredible 12-year, 262-match win streak against Connecticut rivals.
Since that memorable moment, the NMHS matmen have taken nary a misstep, easing to an 18-0 record that includes victories over several of the best pretenders to the state throne, such as Fairfield Warde and Bacon Academy.
Just last Saturday, NMHS proved the class of a deep, 20-team field in its own invitational (see the story and photos on Page S11).
That the Green Wave is strong in wrestling comes as no surprise.
Longtime coach Joe Neff lifted the NMHS mat program to a higher echelon during the 1980s, winning a handful of titles in the old Western Connecticut Conference while developing numerous individual state champions.
It has, for the last decade, been fed a steady stream of experienced and skilled young wrestlers by the youth program called the New Milford Wrestling Association. Many of NMHS' best grapplers since the turn of the century cut their teeth on the mats of the NMWA.
Yet rising to the top in state wrestling seemed all but unattainable until this winter, given the presence of Danbury just down the road. That might have been the goal all along, but it seemed unlikely given the Hatters' seeming invincibility.
Whether New Milford can win a state championship and challenge the best in New England, as the Hatters have often done, remains to be seen.
There's the question of whether the Green Wave, already a proven commodity in dual meets, can turn the trick in a state meet.
It would take impressive runs by such grapplers as Conor Kirkegard, Adam Lynch, Anthony Terlizzi, Nick Amorando and Andrew Golden -- champions all during last Saturday's tournament -- to achieve the first team state title for NMHS wrestling.
What is clear for the moment is that, even amongst a legion of strong sports programs at NMHS, the wrestlers can hold their heads high.
New Milford High's stable of elite teams starts with the Green Wave boys' cross country team and features such perennial SWC and state powers as girls' cross country, boys' lacrosse, boys' soccer, field hockey and gymnastics, which just happens this winter to boast the defending New England all-around champion, Ashley O'Connor, among its numerous skilled athletes.
The next five weeks will determine just where the 2009-10 Green Wave wrestling team fairly stands in the state rankings.
For local sports fans, the tournament run ahead for coach Piel's mat crew also promises to hold more than passing interest as the Green Wave seeks to claim a place of honor in NMHS all-time sports annals.