Beverly Panthers Wrestling '07-'08

Beverly wrestling program taking shape

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Tuesday, January, 22 By Matt Jenkins
Staff writer

Think of the 2006-07 Beverly High wrestling team as a lump of clay.

The clay is lifeless with no polished corners or perfectly rounded edges. It holds no signs pointing to a road of greatness. Yet, it has infinite potential.

Mark Thomas, the Beverly High coach, or wrestling program artist if you prefer, spent last year shaping, carving, and modeling the lump of clay he was given in hopes of someday completing a masterpiece.

Now, during the 2007-08 season, the program may remain years away from being a finished product, but in less than two seasons the Beverly wrestling team has begun taking shape, giving Thomas clues that his vision can be transferred from being a simple idea into an extravagant work of art.

The fact that literally none of the athletes interested in joining the wrestling team a year ago had any experience was an advantage for Thomas. It has helped him lead the Panthers to a dazzling 13-9 start in their second year, which has included several wins over established programs.

"In a lot of ways (the inexperience) actually ended up being a benefit," Thomas said. "No kids were ahead of any other and they hadn't accrued any bad habits either. It was a blank slate. Everything has been done exactly how I want to do it. The program had no one's footprint or fingerprints on it."

Thomas, who is in his fifth year as the Adjustment Counselor at the high school, had a background in wrestling, and he couldn't understand why a town and a school like Beverly didn't have wrestling.

"I got to know the kids and the city and I thought it would be a great place for wrestling," Thomas said. "Beverly typically has kids who are well put together. They're not usually bigger in physical stature than other schools, but the toughness of the kids made wrestling a good fit."

Thomas began bending the ear of former athletic director John Longley about the possibility of a wrestling program being initiated.

Eventually, Thomas wore Longley down.

"He was either tired of listening to me, or I started making sense," Thomas joked. "He backed me as I showed interest and it was really the two of us who spearheaded the project." Selling the sport to athletes took some work, but it was much easier than originally initiating the program.

"I always enjoyed wrestling with my friends and I thought that if the high school had a team maybe it would be something I would be interested in," senior co-captain Raz Davidyan said. "Then word was tossed out that there might be a team. I thought about it and when it was being initiated I said, 'Why not?"

Many of the 45 athletes who initially signed up had the same feelings.

Wrestling seemed like it would be a good sport to participate in. How many other sporting events essentially allow you to go toe-to-toe with another athlete and try to take him or her down?

Eventually the interest dwindled to 28 wrestlers by the end of the season. That happened simply because the athletes weren't prepared for the intensity of the sport.

"I gave it a try and I stayed with it," senior co-captain John DePaula said, "but I thought it was going to be easy. But it was actually the hardest sport I ever tried."

Thomas had to start with the most basic instructions in the first season. His team didn't know the terminology, the rules, or how important it is to maintain a healthy diet.

The Panthers finished a respectable 6-13-1 in their initial season, with DePaula advancing to the states in the 112 pound category.

Thomas noticed a change in the team late last season, and the Panthers hit the ground running this season.

"Late in the season we went to Quabbin in Western Mass. It was a two-hour bus ride, but that day I started to see a shift in the kids," Thomas said. "They went from trying to not get pinned to being upset if they didn't win. They were looking for answers on why they didn't win."

Although the wrestlers may still be looking for answers at times this season, they never going into a match just trying to avoid a pinning.

With Davidyan and DePaula leading what is actually a pretty experienced lineup now (12 of Beverly's 14 starters are upper classmen), Beverly has a legitimate shot at reaching its team goal of qualifying for the team state tournament.

Thomas and the program are also benefitting from having former Salem High wrestling coach Sean Gallagher in the building, serving as the acting Principal. Gallagher will drop in to practice from time to time and give some advice.

Thomas also praises the help he receives from assistant coach Jeremy Jones, a Naval Recruiter from Danvers. Thomas expects many of his wrestlers to accomplish what DePaula did last year, as well | qualify for the state individual tournament.

Davidyan, who now wrestles at 135 pounds, started off in the 145 pound category before dropping to a more natural 140 last year. This season, sensing the team's need for him, Davidyan cut weight to get down to 135.

While Davidyan and DePaula are both aiming to get the Panthers to the tournament and qualify for the state individual tournament themselves, they are not surprised at how well the Panthers are doing in just their second year.

"I guess it's in between expected and surprised," Davidyan, a top-10 student in the senior class who will be deciding on Tufts, Brown, Boston University, College of William and Mary, Brandeis, Rensselaer, and Duke for college, said.

"I'm pretty proud because we have a lot of returning guys who really brought a lot of what they learned last year and incorporated it into this year. That's fortified the team. The new guys are catching on quick and they're also improving dramatically. It's been a great change since last year."

But it's a change Thomas expects to continue. Soon he hopes to be looking at his masterpiece.

"My expectations are always sky-high," Thomas said. "No matter what they give, I'll expect more."

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