BRISTOL - This season was a successful one for Bristol-area wrestling. Bristol Eastern claimed the Class L team title, while three Lancers earned individual titles. A pair of Terryville grapplers won titles in Class S and Bristol Central had two wrestlers earn spots at the State Open with place-finishes at the Class L tournament.
At least part of the success of the area wrestlers - both in recent years and this past one - can be attributed to the Gladiator Wrestling Program. Based out of the Boys & Girls Club of Bristol Family Center and run by Simsbury wrestling coach T.J. Silva, the Gladiator program allows kids from the Bristol area from kindergarten up through high school the opportunity to train and refine their skills year-round.
With so many kids having access to wrestling and quality coaching, the local high school wrestling scene has definitely felt the effects, with many of this season’s stars being current or past members of the program.
This weekend, the Gladiators were represented by at least one wrestler from each of Bristol Eastern, Bristol Central and Terryville at the NHSCA National High School Wrestling Championships in Virginia Beach, Va.: Mikey Barrett, Jordon Champagne, Trent Thompson and Justin Marshall from Bristol Eastern; Chris Trelli from Bristol Central; and Cayleb LeClerc from Terryville. Current Gladiators Alex Marshall and Tommy Nichols also made the trip to Virginia to compete in the middle school portion of the tournament.
“We love it,” Bristol Eastern and Gladiators coach Bryant Lishness said about seeing so many program alumni competing at the national level. “A lot of people have contributed through the years. I don’t even know how many people have come through, not just from Bristol. It’s just great to see these guys as young as four or five years old and up through high school.”
For each of the local wrestlers, this was their first trip to the national tournament and they are not the only ones in Virginia Beach with experience with the Gladiator program.
“It’s a great experience for these kids just to see this level of competition,” Lishness said. “You don’t know the level of competition until you wrestle here. This is probably the biggest tournament in the country - either this or Fargo. There are over 3,600 wrestlers here this weekend. It gives them something to strive for. It shows them how tough it can be.
“There’s a couple of Simsbury guys that came over and did the fall program with us and there are a couple more doing the spring program and wrestling down here.”
These stars of Bristol-area wrestling are products of the mentoring, coaching and training offered by the Gladiator program and now they have begun to pay it forward to the younger members.
“Trelli helps coach an in-house team. Mikey will be helping out with reffing and will be one of our youth coaches. Jack Kachidurian will be down there and Ethan Pearson,” Lishness said. “There are too many kids to list. No matter what, I’ll leave people out. So many guys come back and want to help and volunteer. It’s really cool to see.”
Through their success on the mat and their work with the Gladiators, the top local wrestlers have become role models for the young wrestlers in the program - almost like celebrities.
“All of the little ones look up to them and it gives them something to strive for,” Lishness said. “When we have the Bristol Central tournament or the Eastern-Central meet, they’re all lined up on the mat and they want to give the guys high fives. They’re kind of amazed at what [the older guys] have accomplished.”
The Gladiator program was started in 1988 and since then, according to the program’s website, it has had countless alumni and the collegiate level, including double-digit All-Americans and one champion at. Lishness and fellow Gladiator contributor Dave Thompson are hoping to use a combination of those former members and the current high school athletes to motivate the program’s youth.
“Dave wants to get pictures of everyone from the program that has wrestled in college and he wants to line the room with guys that have done that,” Lishness said. “I know Trelli, Jordon and Mikey have aspirations of wrestling in college. We want to show the kids that they can reach those goals.”
Most of the Bristol area’s representatives at Nationals - as well as many of their high school teammates - started with the Gladiators in elementary school and now, after reaping the benefits of the program, are giving back. For Lishness, that cycle of alumni transitioning from members to leaders is the best thing for the program.
“Once wrestling is in your blood, it’s here to stay,” Lishness said. “All the kids want to come back.”
Josh Kestenbaum can be reached at 860-973-1811 or firstname.lastname@example.org
On Twitter: @K_baum30