SOUTHBURY – With eight finalists – including a trio of weight division champions – Newtown High School’s wrestling team certainly had a lot to be proud of at the South-West Conference championships at Pomperaug High on February 16.
The Nighthawks, however, settled for a close runner-up finish to perennial powerhouse New Milford, which retained its stranglehold on the SWC crown. New Milford scored 232 points with six champions, and a pair of second-place finishers, along with a third and a pair of fourths. The Hawks, meanwhile, scored 223 as they came in with five second-place outcomes as well as four third-place finishes. The next closest school in the 12-team tourney was host Pomperaug with 125.
New Milford won its 11th straight title. There was no championship last winter because weather canceled the tournament. This year’s tourney was put on hold for a day because of snow.
Newtown’s grapplers and coaching staff members had good reason to hold their heads high with their showing.
“We placed 12 guys, out of 14, in the top three. That’s probably more than the team has placed in the last ten years combined,” Newtown Coach Chris Bray said.
As successful as the tournament was for the Hawks, things were quite disappointing for them from a team standpoint.
“As a team, coming under New Milford, is just like the worst shot in the gut,” said Newtown’s Greg LaRussa, who came out on top in the 182-pound weight class.
LaRussa earned an 8-3 decision over New Milford’s Denzel Phillips in the pinnacle bout.
Newtown’s other two champs were Forest Speed at 170 – Speed bested Bunnell of Stratford’s Jack Heiden via pin fall in 4:30 – and Anthony Falbo who claimed the 152 title with a 16-8 major decision over Bethel’s Victor Vieira in the finals.
Newtown, after falling just short in a regular-season match with New Milford, wanted more.
“We came here to win as a team. Beating New Milford has been a goal since day one,” Speed said.
The Hawks were oh so close – “I knew this was going to be a dogfight coming in,” Bray said – thanks to the canceling out effect of some grapplers exceeding Bray’s expectations and others who came up just a little bit short.
“We had a couple of guys that surprised us and stepped up,” Bray said. “And we had a few letdowns.”
One of those surprises was actually in the form of a runner-up grappler, Ryan Wagner. Newtown’s 220-pound representative got all the way to the finals before being pinned by New Milford’s Tom McIlveen in 5:40. Wagner, first-year Coach Bray noted, didn’t have an opportunity to wrestle last year because of what Bray described as non-wrestling-related team requirements.
Speed, meanwhile, had to get up to championship speed in minimal time after not practicing for much of the week because he was under the weather. LaRussa – who wasn’t feeling his best in the tourney – made nice strides this season after competing at the junior varsity ranks a year ago.
In the 106 weight class, Tom Leuci gave Newtown a third-place finish. Ed Lovely was runner-up at 113. Luca Crudo earned third in the 120 division. Matt Gonzalez got to the finals at 126. James Leuci reached the title round at 132. Mike Long earned third at 138. Logan Walsh got third at 145. Andy Hubina made it to the finals at 195. Connor Lemay, after a bye and a loss at 160, battled back with a pair of wins before being defeated by eventual third-place finisher Andrew D’Amico of New Fairfield. Tom Long earned a win before falling to eventual third-place finisher Kylani Walker of Stratford.
“I was very proud of these guys,” Bray said.