A year hiatus and a collection of new athletes can cause growing pains for a high school sports program.
But with a trio of successful wrestlers and an experienced coach, the Haverhill High wrestling team has shown promise in its opening two varsity meets of the season, despite a 1-4-1 record.
"Our team is still learning the ropes," said head coach Brian Urquhart, who has more than 40 years of wrestling experience. "I've seen a huge advance in their skill level since they started wrestling a month ago."
The team has wrestled in two varsity meets so far in the young season. The Hillies beat Saugus, lost to Salem and Masconomet at Masconomet, and tied Georgetown. Haverhill also fell to New Bedford and Pentucket at a six-team meet in Pentucket last week. The Hillies have also wrestled in junior varsity meets, including a good showing at the Sons of Italy Tournament in Wilmington.
Part of the reason for the losses is the spread of talent that Haverhill has in its weight classes. The Hillies are loaded with wrestlers in upper weight class divisions, while lacking bodies in the divisions less than 120 pounds. That forces them to forfeit matches in those lighter divisions.
"We're forfeiting three or four weight classes at six points a class," Urquhart said. "So right away, we're already down 18-0 before we even start the meet."
The bunching in weight classes is typical of a high school wrestling team. Teams are usually bunched in the 130-150 pound weight class, but don't normally have the heavier class wrestlers that Haverhill does, which can allow the Hillies to take some points in meets.
Haverhill High had big expectations for freshman Orlando Rojas, the Hillies' lightest wrestler at 120 pounds, after he won the New England Championship as part of the Haverhill youth wrestling program. Rojas has lived up to the expectations and won his first 11 matches of the season, before falling last week at the Pentucket meet.
"He's come right in and he's been as tough as any kid I've ever coached," Urquhart said.
Rojas has made quick and easy work of most of his opponents. He got all his victories by pin, including nine in the first period of matches.
"The sky's the limit with (Rojas)," Urquhart said.
Haverhill High has undergone a renaissance with wrestling after the program was abruptly cut last season by then-Athletic Director Garin Veris. Wrestlers such as Tyler Bard and Parris Williams were forced to wrestle with Whittier Regional High as part of a co-op program. But with new blood coming up through the ranks of the Haverhill youth wrestling program this year, Haverhill High Athletic Director Tom O'Brien saw enough bodies to assure him Hillies wrestling could return this winter.
The Haverhill youth wrestling program, led by Mick Lawlor and Dave Guselli, was a big part of that decision. In addition to Rojas, the program also produced freshman Samie Al-Ziab. Al-Ziab is wrestling at 195 pounds against mostly upperclassmen. He has a .500 record against experienced wrestlers, and Urquhart expects much growth as Al-Ziab's career goes on.
The Hillies were boosted last Friday by the return of Williams. Williams, who missed the team's first few meets after a concussion suffered during football season, went 3-0 in the Pentucket meet and has set his goals set high this season.
It was a long road back to the mat for Williams. He had been cleared to practice just a few weeks ago, but concussion symptoms recurred and he was forced back to the sidelines. Even when Williams was injured, his experience was invaluable in the first month of the season. He mentored several of the young wrestlers, showing moves and techniques to help them become better competitors.
"I've taught them how to do the penetration steps right," Williams said. "If they're doing a move wrong, I try to help them with it."
In addition to teaching by Williams, Haverhill's young wrestlers have an older, yet somewhat inexperienced mentor to help them along. Haverhill High football coach Tim O'Connor is an assistant coach with the wrestling squad, and this is his first involvement with competitive wrestling. Urquhart cites O'Connor as a major aid to reestablishing wrestling at the school.
"What Tim lacks for in knowledge for wrestling, he more than makes up for in the psyche of these kids," Urquhart said. "He's coached over half of these kids on the football team. He's working in the building as a teacher and we're very fortunate to have him."
O'Connor is also forced into duty because of his size. He often steps in to wrestle Saul Medina, who is Haverhill High's only heavyweight wrestler.
Even with a sub-par record, Haverhill's main goal has already been achieved just a month into the season.
"The objective coming in was to re-establish wrestling at Haverhill," Urquhart said. "That goal has been accomplished."
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