SPONSORED BY: SportsGrub
By BOB YORK
The New England Independent School Wrestling Association found a home for its championships this weekend: the Governor William A. O’Neill State Armory in Hartford, Conn. The move to the armory was made out of necessity, rather than any sense of nostalgia, when a member school was unable to host the championships.
So, when this long-revered structure, which was built in 1909 and dedicated by President William H. Taft, proved itself available, it seemed like a natural to host a round of championship wrestling. After all, the building serves as headquarters for the Connecticut Military Department and has come to represent a home away from home for many a war hero for more than a century.
And by Saturday night, it indeed turned out to be the right place for a perfect ending as far as the Belmont Hill boys were concerned as they captured their third straight NEISWA tournament title by beating out 46 other teams with 194.5 points. They did so by chalking up a pair of gold-medal finishes in addition to two silver medals and a bronze.
The championship marks the third straight for Belmont Hill, which posted an undefeated (12-0) dual-meet regular season mark this winter, as well as their fourth regional title in five years and the sixth since 2007. In addition, they have won the Graves Kelsey Tournament championship 17 times now, including the past six years, as well as the Independent School League Dual Meet 17 times, including the last six.
“It’s very gratifying to be working with folks you really enjoy working with … kids families and coaches … at something that’s really hard to accomplish and then succeeding at it,” said Don Bradley, the Belmont Hill wrestling coach, as to how it feels to win three straight championships.
“As for a key to our success, our program is blessed with strong administrative support … particularly from Head of School Greg Schneider and Athletic Director George Tahan,” added Bradley, who has been coaching at Belmont Hill for three decades and who was named New England Independent Schools Coach of the Year in 2006. “Beyond that, I have the finest coaching staff in New England in Dave Leonardis, Todd Davis, Steve Kaplan and George Sullivan, all of whom teach at Belmont Hill.”
Northfield Mount Hermon wound up second with 184 points, following a pair of gold- and bronze-medal finishes, while Brunswick closed in third with 180.5 points, due in large part to two gold- and three silver-medal performances. Greens Farms Academy, which wound up fourth with 167 points, recorded a meet-high four gold medals as well as a pair of silver medals.
As for the girls, there’s been no time to reminiscence – yet. That time will come, however, and they will remember Saturday night as the night they shattered the glass ceiling in this relic of a building by competing in the NEISWA championship tournament – and it was the girls of Northfield Mount Hermon who brought the hammer down. NMH walked off by pacing the 16-team team field with a 103-point effort and was highlighted by five medal-winning performances: one gold and two each in silver and bronze.
“Building the female side of the program has been something we’ve been working on for the last few years,” said NMH mentor Zack Bates. “In my second year at NMH we were very fortunate to have a core group of girls that came out together. Then, the year after, they convinced more of their friends to come out.
“That was the year that Katie Gatza came to NMH,” added Bates. “She is the only female wrestler who has come to NMH with prior wrestling experience. Katie quickly emerged as a leader with the group that now has grown to include 11 wrestlers.
“As for key performances, Katie was our only New England champ,” added Bates, “but the key to our female team’s success wasn’t the work of just one wrestler. It was because of our numbers and the cumulative points scored by all 11 of our wrestlers.”
Middlesex School collected a pair of silver medals and a bronze on the day, while Lawrence Academy chalked up one silver and one bronze. Landmark, Loomis-Chaffee, Phillips Andover, Deerfield and Governors all claimed one first-place finish each.
“Getting to this point has really been exciting,” said Kassie Archambault, the Phillips Andover Academy coed wrestling coach, who is the first – and only – female head wrestling coach in New England prep school annals and who was Andover’s first female wrestler in 2004. “This is the first year that the NEISWA girls tournament was officially sanctioned and we had girls representing 16 schools in this tournament, so this marks a really important step in the growth and popularity of girls wrestling.“
Adding to the luster of Archambault’s first year at the helm was that five of her wrestlers qualified for next weekend’s Nationals at Lehigh University including Marisol Nugent, her lone entry in the girls competition, who won the 144-pound weight class and was named the Outstanding Wrestler in the girls tourney.
As far as the coed competition is concerned, the eighth-place finish Avon Old Farms carved out for Coach John Bourgault could have only heighten the sense of sentimentality he must have been feeling standing in this military venue’s massive drill hall that measures 269 feet by 189 feet and clears 100 feet in height.
“It’s quite a place … it’s quite appropriate for a wrestling championship,” said Bourgault, who must have felt right at home in the hall, having earned the rank of Major during a 20-year career in the U.S. Marine Corps. The former Avon (80) standout probably even provided a sneak peak or two to teammates and opponents alike as to what a Marine in the making looks like, as he played football and lacrosse for the Beavers and was captain of the wrestling team his senior year.
To be sure, Bourgault, who shares Avon’s athletic director duties with Geoff Barlow, the NEPSAC District IV president, crammed quite a bit into his resume during a two-decade stint in the military. The Cal. State University at Hayward grad held a number of command and staff positions, including infantry officer and CH-53E pilot. The CH-53E, known as the “Super Stallion,” in which Bourgault flew more than a dozen combat missions during Operation Desert Shield/Storm in 1990-91, is a cargo helicopter designed to transport up to 55 troops or 30,000 pounds of cargo or carry external slung loads up to 36,000 pounds.
He graduated from the Amphibious Warfare School, as well as from the Marine Corps Command and Staff College and was an adjunct faculty member of the Marine Corps University. It was his final assignment in the Marines, however, that may be a bit more revealing, at least as far as his coaching background is concerned.
Bourgault’s final mission saw him named as deputy director of the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program. The program was developed to combine existing and new hand-to-hand and close-quarter combat techniques with morale and team-building functions while stressing mental and character development, including the responsible use of force, leadership and teamwork.
And speaking of teamwork, there was a lot of it on display prior to the tourney. With the competition taking place throughout the weekend, the groundwork for this tournament was put down – literally – 24 hours earlier. That’s when Friday’s and Saturday’s adversaries stood up as teammates on Thursday, as wrestlers from eight NEISWA schools lugged their mats to the armory and laid them out to serve as the floorboards for this year’s showcase.
In a fitting portrait of camaraderie in an often-intense sport such as wrestling, coaches and wrestlers representing Taft, Avon Old Farms, Northfield Mount Hermon, Belmont Hill, Loomis-Chaffee and Greens Farms descended upon Hartford with mats that measure 42-feet-by-42-feet and even when separated into three pieces, can still weigh up to 300 to 400 pounds. There, they spread out their mats, divided them, and laid them end-to-end on the floor of the drill hall.
2020 NEPSAC Wrestling Championships at Governor William A. O'Neill State Armory, Hartford, CT. Photos by Stan Godlewski
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