CUMBERLAND — Steve Gordon can’t help but smile when recalling the images of his Cumberland High matmen celebrating their second title in three years at the R.I. Interscholastic Wrestling Championships last Feb. 25.
They did so on the stellar moves of then-senior captain Tom Lacroix, who represented the Clippers in the 195-pound weight class at the event finals, held at the Providence Career & Technical High School field house.
“It was the last pivotal match of the night, and Tommy had to win it by a major decision (eight points or more) for us to get the extra point and beat Hendricken,” Gordon remembered last week. “The boy from South Kingstown (fellow finalist Ryan Smith) stood up on purpose, giving Tommy the one-point escape; he did that so he could try to take Tom down and win by pin.
“That escape gave him only a six-point advantage, but Tommy immediately took him down late in the third (and last period) and rode it out the last 30 seconds,” he added. “We all went ballistic. That was one of the most exciting matches I’ve ever witnessed – not the most, but it’s way up there.”
With Lacroix’s capture of his first individual state crown, the Clippers secured a 171.5-170.5 triumph over the Hawks. For Gordon, it was his fourth Rhode Island crown in his 43 years of coaching the CHS grapplers, who also finished the season unbeaten (16-0) in dual-meet action.
(It should be noted he created the program in 1968, and snared state crowns in 1979, 2005 and 2010 before last winter’s amazing finish).
“We’ve been runner-ups quite a few times, missing state championships by a point-and-a-half; we lost by one twice,” he stated. “We beat Hendricken by one, so you win by a point, lose by a point. That’s just the way it is.”
Gordon grinned again after that last statement. He stood in the hallway of the CHS circular building, not far from the auxiliary gym, as he greeted his wrestlers for their second day of practice.
Back for his 44th campaign, he admitted his squad may not be able to relive the drama and excitement of that state-championship run, but he’s more than anxious to put his kids back to work and see.
He enters this season with six returning starters, including senior co-captains Erik Travers at 152 pounds and Jon Maccini at 145, not to mention junior Chris Hayes at 171, classmate Nick Tribelli at 132, senior Cody Beaudette at 113 and junior Chris Nordby at 120.
“Hayes is a returning starter, but he didn’t place at states,” Gordon noted. “I’ll tell you, he’s a middle linebacker for the football team, and he’s a tough kid, tough as nails. Cody’s back at 113; he finished third at the state meet, but he had a lousy tournament. That’s him talking, not me. He wanted to win it. He’s told me, ‘I’ve got something to prove this year, Coach.’
“I don’t know if we can match what we did last year, but I’ve got some very good wrestlers coming up from (junior-varsity),” he added. “Our program at that level is pretty solid; we finished second at the JV states (behind Hendricken) last season.”
Among those grapplers in whom he has great expectations: Junior Kyle Durkin, who most probably will be at 126 pounds; senior Kyle Szumita, a back-to-back state JV champ at 145; and junior Ben Tribelli and senior Richie Whitman, who should battle for the opening at 138.
“Richie could surprise some people,” Gordon said with his patented smile. “Durkin was a JV state champion, and Szumita was a two-time champ. We’re hoping (Szumita) is just like (graduated senior) Max Carlsten, who won two JV titles and went to the (varsity) final last year (before losing to Steve Jarrell of East Greenwich, 12-2).
“We’re hoping Kyle does the same thing,” he continued. “We’ve got some competition on this team. Our wrestle-offs (for the right to represent Cumberland in a dual meet) are tough. If a kid is close to one of our top wrestlers, he’ll challenge him. It’s that way through most of our lineup.
“No spot is safe; that’s how we pick our team. We might be suspect at the top (meaning 182, 195 and 220 pounds, in addition to heavyweight), but we’ve got some new boys there, and I can’t wait to see how those weights work out.”
Senior Barrett Bernier and sophomore Nick Giorgio figure to be starters at 182 and 195, depending on challengers, while sophomore Matt Kay, he hopes, will be a surprise at 220.
“Matt didn’t wrestle last year, so he’s back; he could be another surprise for us,” Gordon stated. “We need to fill some holes there at the top, but we’re going to have some guys who want to take over, be a part of the lineup.
“Can we repeat? That’s our goal,” he added. “It’s always our goal to win. We’re going to have to work very, very hard. Our main competition will no doubt come from Hendricken, which is the team to beat. They’re loaded (with talent), but East Providence is always strong. They always give us a hard time.
“Then there’s Warwick Vets, which is pretty good, too. You also have to keep an eye on Mount Hope, which came on strong last year. We know we’re wrestling in the (state’s) top division, and we’re going to have an eye-opener in a couple of weeks.”
Gordon indicated that, on Saturday, Dec. 15, the Clippers will travel to Long Island to face New York’s team champion, Wantaugh High, in a dual-meet invitational tourney.
“That’s going to be fun,” he said. “We’ll have four dual meets that weekend, so it’s going to give us a ton of outstanding competition. You always want to face good competition to get better; let them see some really good wrestling, then we’ll come back and work even harder.”