One of the nice things about high school wrestling is that even if one’s team doesn’t succded, it’s perfectly acceptable for individuals to stand out and gain their own share of the spotlight.
When those wrestlers are from tradition-rich athletic programs such as Northeastern, however, finding that spotlight can still be difficult.
This season, however, the Bobcats sport a pair of wrestling standouts who are looking to seize the moment and continue a budding tradition of their own.
Sophomores Cole Wilson (31-2) and Thomas Gradwell (24-7) both recently captured District 3 Class 3-A Section 4 titles and are looking to continue that success when the District 3 tournament opens Thursday at Hershey's Giant Center.
“It’s a challenge here. Northeastern athletics, on the whole, are very good,” Northeastern head coach Dan Wilson said, noting the school’s success in sports such as volleyball, basketball and football.
“Wrestling, as a whole, Northeastern has never been strong in wrestling. (The Bobcats were 3-14 this season). What makes it worthwhile is you know you’ve got two guys like this (Wilson and Gradwell) that are constantly working. There’s a reason they are where they are; because they’ve worked their butts off all year long.”
Wilson (113 pounds) and Gradwell (106) will attempt to become only the second, and possibly third, District 3 wrestling champions that the school has produced since 1978. Only former Bobcats heavyweight Blaine Yinger has won a district title since that year, his coming during his junior season in 2016.
They’re also hoping to qualify for, and find further success, on the PIAA level. Dan Wilson, who is Cole's father, estimates the school hasn’t produced a state medalist since the 1970s.
Different motivations: While their ultimate goals are the same, each Northeastern wrestler is pushed by slightly different motivations.
For Cole Wilson, it’s avenging a District 3 performance from a season ago that saw him fall in the semifinals and miss out on a medal. It’s also about trying to make a return trip to the PIAA tournament and potentially grabbing that elusive state medal.
For Gradwell, it’s making the most of his first trip to the district tournament.
Each noted that their improvements from a season ago were less about a honing mat technique and more about a focus on the mental side of the sport.
“My head, my mentality,” Cole Wilson said of his progress. “Going into last year, I was not really watching my weight, and would wait until the last minute to lose the weight. And my head wasn’t really focused on wrestling. I was just focused on making weight all the time, and things didn’t really work out. I don’t think I wrestled to my best and it cost me in the semifinals.”
For Gradwell, his developments were born of putting in more effort in the offseason.
“Just a lot more focused than I was last year,” Gradwell said of his advancement from his freshman season, a year that saw him finish one win shy of a District 3 spot. “I had some success last year, but not like I’ve had this year.”
Pushing each other: Being in close weight classes, both admit that the other’s presence has helped them tremendously this year. They often practice against each other and will sometimes share information on common opponents.
“I’ve improved a lot because of Cole,” Gradwell said.
“It’s actually a pretty common thing,” Dan Wilson said of teams fielding wrestlers in “back-to-back” weight classes at the district level. “That’s because of the competition in the room. These guys are friends, but when they live wrestle, it’s whatever man comes out on top. And that makes both of them stronger; they push each other.”
District game plans: Finding success at the District 3 level will be less about technique and more about managing weight and sticking to their game plans.
“Mentally, it’s a challenge getting the weight down that first day and not overdoing it,” Dan Wilson said. “When you know you’re wrestling and have to make weight that next day, it plays with their heads a little bit. That’s where most kids mess up, they worry about that weight cut, and end up not drinking and not eating properly. And then they don’t have the extra energy in those tight matches.”
Cole Wilson said that just staying with what’s got him to this point will be the most beneficial. He can’t let the moment get to him and start playing into his opposition’s hands.
“If you wrestle your style, you’ll do well in matches because you’re used to doing what you do in practice,” Cole Wilson said. “If you change your style, that’s when you mess up and lose, because you’re playing to (the opponents) strong suit.”
Hoping to grow program: Coach Wilson is hoping that the duo’s accomplishments this season, and going forward, will spur growth in the program, leading to more triumphs down the road.
“We come in here with a positive attitude to try to boost our youth numbers up,” Dan Wilson said. “And hopefully that transfers to the junior high level and then we can fill a lineup at the high school level. When you have guys with success at the higher level, I think it boosts them little guys a little bit more.”
Reach Elijah Armold at firstname.lastname@example.org.