BETHLEHEM — The ultimate goal of The Hill School's wrestling program is to make it back to the top of the pack on a national level. The Blues aren't there quite yet, but they certainly showed that they're well on their way at this weekend's National Prep Championships at Lehigh University.
Eight Hill wrestlers made it there, four took home medals, and three of them won their final bout Saturday afternoon at Stabler Arena. Chad Saunders placed fifth, Brent Waterman and Kostya Golobokov both finished seventh, and John Hill wound up eighth for the Blues, who finished in 12th place in the team standings. Wyoming Seminary won the team title, ending runner-up Blair Academy's 33-year reign as champion by a 299.5-256.5 score.
"It was great,' said Hill coach Mark Pearson, whose team racked up 55 points compared to 29 at last year's season-ending event. "We improved so much in the last year. We doubled our place winners. We jumped from 26th to 12th. I think everyone's happy with the improvement they showed individually and as a team. It's great to go out and win three out of four. The only four teams that placed more than we did were the top four teams.'
"I thought overall, we did well,' said 145-pound senior Saunders (30-9), who came in as the ninth seed. "It was a good stepping stone for upcoming years. I think if we keep going at the pace we're going, we should be there in a few years.'
Saunders was making his fourth straight national appearance and won his second medal to go with a silver he earned as a freshman.
"I'm happy,' he said. "I could have placed higher.'
Saunders came out aggressively in the bout for fifth place against fourth-seeded Aiden Conroy from Northfield Mount Hermon, Mass., and recorded a takedown in the first 10 seconds. He quickly added an escape and another takedown in the opening 20 seconds of the second period and then used an arm bar to end it with a pin in 2:13.
He thought that his national experience over the last three years helped.
"You sort of learn how to handle every match,' he said. "How to warm up. You learn how to eat. That's important. It gets a lot easier.'
Waterman (21-4), a 152-pound senior in his first season with the Blues, also got off to a quick start in his seventh-place tilt. He took the lead with a takedown in the first period, pulled off a reverse early in the second, and rode those points to a 4-0 decision over Jackson Law from Cape Henry Collegiate in Virginia.
"I try to do the best to my potential,' he said. "Obviously, I have high expectations.'
He, like the other Hill medalists, was able to relax somewhat after having already clinched a top-eight finish. But there was still the desire to finish as high as possible.
"It's a little bit of both,' added Waterman, who came in as the fifth seed. "It's definitely tough mentally, but you try to help the team out.'
Things didn't go as well for 220-pound senior Hill (31-15), who lost a tough match in Friday night's quarterfinal round and was pinned in the battle for seventh place by Mac Meehan from Dematha Catholic, Md.
"I was seeded fifth,' he said. "I really wanted to match my seed. I had a real tough match (Friday). Things kind of went downhill from there. From the first day, I was so broken down. I was so sore.'
Then Golobokov — a junior from Moscow, Russia — finished up the day with a 7-1 win in the 285-pound bout for seventh place over Toby Okwara from Charlotte (North Carolina) Latin School. He controlled the action while on the bottom and in neutral position after allowing an escape in the second period. He took the lead with a takedown with two seconds left in the middle session, added an escape midway through the third, and wrapped up the win with a late takedown and near fall.
Last year he qualified for nationals, but could not wrestle due to a skin condition.
"It's been a wait,' he said with a smile. "I think I improved a lot over the season ... worked hard. In neutral, I have some problems, still, but I'm working on it. Overall, 30-9, which is good. Seventh at National Preps ... another positive side.'
In fact, it was a positive experience for the whole team throughout the year.
"It's been a really good year,' added Waterman. "In the practice room, having good practice partners. And the coaches have been great.'
"It was a great season,' said Saunders, who finished his Hill career at 108-35. "It was fun. It was a good team. It was a tight-knit team.'