With bigger numbers, Darien wrestling experiences success

Darien's 2021-22 wrestling co-captains Mason Hedley (left) and Rhys Overbeck.

Darien's 2021-22 wrestling co-captains Mason Hedley (left) and Rhys Overbeck.

Contributed

Darien wrestling coach Greg Lewis was “through the roof.”

His Blue Wave had just defeated Norwalk 33-30 in the team’s opening dual meet on Dec. 13, and there was plenty to celebrate for a program which had just one previous win over a five-year span.

“I told these kids this already is something special,” said Lewis, adding that the Wave hadn’t won a home opener since 2009. “In light of where the Darien program has been, this is one for the record books and now how far we want to go is up to you guys. The kids are totally buying into the program and the success.”

To set the stage, consider this: Darien had just seven wrestlers in the program two years ago and, unable to fill out the weight classes, was mathematically unable to win most of its matches due to forfeits.

It’s one victory came in 2019 against St. Joseph, which had just four wrestlers.

The low turnout made it hard to keep even the smaller numbers.

“They have to work hard every day in practice and they go into every match knowing that you statistically can’t win as a team,” said Lewis, who started coaching Darien in 2016. “That becomes demoralizing over time. We had a tough time retaining wrestlers and being fully committed to the team. It’s hard to have a high-intensity practice with just four or seven guys in the room.”

A change actually started last year, even without a CIAC season, as the roster grew to 16 for workouts.

This year, the Blue Wave has grown to 26 wrestlers, 16 of which are in the sophomore and freshman classes.

Goodbye forfeits, hello victories: After one win in five seasons, Darien is now 6-8.

“We had a couple of FCIAC placers and a few guys had success here and there, but this is a different story,” Lewis said. “The full program is here, kids aren’t quitting because they’re experiencing some success and they’re pushing each other to be better and better. It starts with having a full team and then builds in the wrestling room at practice.

“Once you get that little taste of success, you’ll do what it takes to succeed again.”

Lewis credits much of the turnout to assistant coach Joe Testa, who was hired as the defensive coordinator of the Darien freshman football team two years ago. Testa also works with the Darien Junior Football League and the town’s youth wrestling program.

“I attribute that to his presence on the football field, bridging that connection between the two groups, and being visible,” Lewis said. “A lot of our kids are young and they’re new. We’ve got a ton of freshmen last year and this year and that’s what has changed.”

The Blue Wave features two senior co-captains in Rhys Overbeck, who wrestles at 220 pounds, and Mason Hedley at 170.

Overbeck has been one of the Wave’s bright lights since his freshman season, winning multiple tournaments and finishing sixth at the FCIAC tournament as a sophomore. He dislocated his knee two years ago and Lewis said he’s still working back to full strength.

“Rhys has been there with us through thick and thin and he’s one of the kids that has experienced success even without a room full of kids to push him,” Lewis said. “He’s a keystone wrestler on the team. He has seen it from both ends and now we want to continue this success.”

Hedley is in his first year wrestling, but worked out with the team last winter and has been winning a “bunch of matches,” Lewis said.

“Based on his work ethic and intensity, I asked him to be captain this year. He showed himself as a leader last year in the weight room working out, so we need that intensity,” Lewis said.

Some of the younger wrestlers joined the Blue Wave with experience.

Sophomore Nate Smith (113) has been in the youth wrestling program and has lost just a couple of matches this season, and another sophomore, Nate Piersol, has competed in the Mad Bulls wrestling program in Norwalk.

Dash Ross (182), a junior, transferred to Darien from Rye Country Day, where he was third among independent schools in New York State.

“There are a bunch of new guys with varying results right now, but they have the athleticism, intelligence and desire to close the gap with the experienced guys,” Lewis said. “That’s what you want to see as a head coach.”

Filling out the lineup sheet now takes a bit more time, and that situation isn’t likely to change anytime soon.

“Our starting lineup will lose two starting seniors next year and both of those spots are already filled,” Lewis said. “There was a bit of a stigma and I think there still is, but I think Joe was able to break some of that. The kids who are coming into the room are athletes and it makes it much easier to work with them.”

And that one win over St. Joe’s in 2019? It’s part of a different era of Blue Wave wrestling.

“I consider these real wins this year because we are winning matches and we’re bringing the full lineup,” Lewis said. “This chapter of Darien wrestling started this year with these kids.”

david.stewart@hearstmediact.com; @dstewartsports