John Habib's City Sports: Russian import aims for U.S. supremacy
AZALKHAN Sarvalov was only 8 years old when his mother lost her battle with cancer. His family was living in his native Russia at the time of her death and two years later decided to move to Manchester, where Sarvalov's uncle had already settled.
The uncle had won a national wrestling championship in Russia, Sarvalov said, so when one of Azalkhan's friends, Mansur Vasibov, suggested he join him on the Manchester Central High wrestling team, the then-freshman didn't need a lot of convincing.
"In that first year, it was tough to communicate with Azalkhan," said Central head coach Jason Cumming, an assistant to Jim Delani that season. "We had to get through the language barrier, but the first impression Jim and I had of Azalkhan was how much of sponge he was in practice. I mean, he retained everything you taught him, learned it quickly and applied it during his matches.
"We knew right then he had the potential of being a very good wrestler."
In just three years, all in the 145-pound weight class, Sarvalov went from posting a 10-13 record as a freshman to an eye-opening 31-13 mark as a sophomore last season.
This year, he broke through and won the Division I title at Concord High last Saturday, culminating his day with a 9-8 finals victory over Shaun Ahern of Plaistow's Timberlane Regional.
Asked how it felt to win a state meet championship, Sarvalov responded by talking about his uncle, Maultve Sarvalov.
"I wanted to win it for him," Azalkhan said. "He comes and watches me. After every match, he tells me what I did right or wrong. He once won a national championship, and I want to do the same for him."
Cumming said Sarvalov is not satisfied with winning just the Division I title.
"He wants to win the Meet of Champions, the New Englands after that and the nationals," said Cumming. "He wants it all."
The second stage in Sarvalov's bid for such a grand slam takes place today at Pinkerton Academy in Derry, site of the Meet of Champions. He takes a 67-30 career record into the meet, and there's a good chance he'll meet Ahern again in the 145-pound final.
Sarvalov is seeded first, Ahern second.
Cumming said Sarvalov's development accelerated with his performance in last winter's Lowell (Mass.) Invitational, one of the region's premier mid-season meets.
"He entered that meet unseeded and just started winning match after match," said Cumming. "He ended up in sixth place, which speaks volumes for an unseeded sophomore."
Sarvalov later scored fourth-place finishes in invational meets at Timberlane and Winnacunnet High of Hampton. Those were the products of hard work that continues to this day, according to his coach.
"His work ethic is second to none," Cumming said. "I mean, this kid will even study film of himself and watch things he can improve upon to do better."
During the offseason, Sarvalov trains with Cumming's Granite State Gryphons Wrestling Club in Manchester and at Smitty's Wrestling Barn in Danville, run by Timberlane graduate and former national interscholastic champion Matt Smith.
"He just continues to want to get better," said Cumming. "He's so competitive that he takes losing very seriously."
If Sarvalov's work continues to pay dividends, he won't be resuming offseason workouts anytime soon. The top three finishers in the Meet of Champions will advance to the New England Championships in Providence next weekend.
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ANOTHER local wrestler who will be competing in the meet of champions, Manchester West's Mike Garcia, will be competing at the collegiate level next season, his coach said.
According to Casey Buckley, Plymouth State University and Johnson & Wales University in Providence appear to be Garcia's most likely destinations.
"He's a talented wrestler, and schools are looking at him," said Buckley, a former two-time state champion for Hollis/Brookline and now the West coach.
"Mike went from a freshman who wasn't athletic to the best wrestler in our program this year," said Buckley. "He's got 69 wins in four seasons, the most of anyone in the last four years at West. He's focused and listens when someone points out what he could have done better after his match."
Garcia's record has improved steadily, from 3-7 his freshman season to 12-16 as a sophomore and 26-14 last year.
This year, he's 28-8, with a chance to reach the 30-win mark this weekend in Derry. His first opponent Saturday is Travis Reyes of Concord.
"Mike is the first kid from West to place at the Lowell Invitational in five years," said Buckley, noting Garcia's seventh-place showing in that meet. "I've never doubted him, and I believe he has a legitimate chance to qualify for the New England tournament."
"City Sports" appears on Saturday in the New Hampshire Union Leader. Email staff reporter John Habib at email@example.com.