Timberlane wrestlers eyeing 13th straight state crown
PLAISTOW - It's just a little more than an hour before the event is scheduled to begin and already cars are starting to fill the parking lot.
The junior varsity matchup hasn't started yet and still the bleachers are about half full. This type of crowd doesn't normally show up for even the biggest rivalry in basketball, but this isn't basketball. This is wrestling at Timberlane Regional High School and tonight the Owls take on fellow Division I heavyweight Salem.
That was the scene on Wednesday night at Timberlane, where wrestling is more of a religion than a sport.
"Wrestling is king at this school," said Timberlane senior wrestler Josh Burnham. "It's like football in other schools."
The Owls have won every title in the state's largest division this millennium. They've racked up 13 in a row and five straight New England championships. The last time they lost at a state tournament was in 1999 when they were beaten by the Blue Devils and the last time they lost in the regular season was 2007 to Concord.
Timberlane rolled to a 60-9 win over Salem on Wednesday and is now 8-0. The Blue Devils are 8-2.
The gym's walls are covered with state and New England wrestling championship banners. There are 13 names on the New England Wrestling Champions banner and one national champion, Matt Smith, who won that accolade in 2002.
As the varsity meet is set to begin the only light left on in the gym is the one directly above the mat. The guitar riff for "Welcome to the Jungle" by Guns 'N Roses blares over the sound system and the Timberlane squad jogs onto the mat for its warm-up routine.
Dozens of kids crowd around the mat to get a closer look as the Owls, the next generation of wrestlers learning first-hand from the current one.
"We've got a lot of support," said coach Barry Chooljian, who has coached the team for 30 years. "The kids love wrestling and they have a lot of pride in the team."
By the time the first match took to the mat the Timberlane side of the bleachers was full and the Salem side was close to half full.
Burnham said that's nothing compared to some of the meets they have, like when North Andover, Mass., came here recently.
"This is small," Burnham said. "Look how quiet they are. When North Andover was here it was crazy. I wish every meet was like that."
Senior wrestler Josh Riley said he wanted to be a part of the wrestling team since he was in fifth grade, as do a lot of kids that age in Plaistow. He said there is a good support system in town, lots of outlets for kids to sharpen their skills, and a strong drive among the populace to be part of the greatness.
He also said the program has a reputation that could help him wrestle at the next level.
"Not only is it awesome to be a part of the team," Riley said. "Other people know us. They know we're hard working kids."
Year after year that hard work has paid off with title after title. So far, this year looks no different.
Winners for the Owls on Wednesday included Jake Sheehan at 106 pounds (17-7 decision), Tyler Fitzpatrick at 113 pounds (pin), Adam Corey at 126 pounds (pin), Ryan Peters at 132 pounds (5-2), Derek Bohle at 138 pounds (6-2), Burnham at 145 pounds (tech. fall), Chris Pagliccia at 160 pounds (7-2), Josh Riley at 170 pounds (pin), Harry Denoncourt at 182 pounds (pin), Cam Gargano at 195 pounds (pin), Shawn Grenier at 220 pounds (pin) and Zach Stewart at 285 pounds (pin).
The two winners for Salem were John Rheaume at 120 pounds (3-2) and Cody Sharp at 152 pounds (pin).