New Bedford wrestling coach Steve Sentes likes it when the Whalers have an underdog mind-set. He used to be considered one, too, during his high school wrestling days in Fort Myers, Fla. in the mid ’90s.
“My senior year in the state rankings they had the Top 10 [per weight class] and then, under ‘Dark Horses’ was me,’” Sentes recalled.
His journey and the mantra inspired Sentes to name the new wrestling club in New Bedford the Dark Horse Wrestling Club — scheduled to open by the end of this year and free for all city residents. He founded the club along with Somerset Berkley coach Bob Ragonesi, Middleborough assistant coach Derek Seibert, and Mount Hope, R.I. coach Eric Francis.
“I like using that motivation of ‘Nobody knows who we are,’” Sentes said.
But this season — and years past — the Whalers really shouldn’t be considered an also-ran when it comes to Division 1 state championship contenders.
Sure, New Bedford is geographically far from the Eastern Mass. wrestling bastion that is the Merrimack Valley, but after a 23-6 win over Durfee on Wednesday, the Whalers are 20-0-2 in dual meets since the start of the 2019-20 season and 5-0-1 with three meets remaining.
New Bedford opted into the postseason and will likely be a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the upcoming Division 1 South tournament, among a group of favorites that includes Mansfield and Braintree.
The Whalers are defending champions and have won two of the last five sectional titles, but their 2016 and 2020 titles came via the individual tournament format, which won’t happen this year due to COVID-19 protocols. New Bedford won in 2016 with just eight competing wrestlers, five of whom won individual sectional championships.
Sectional and state champions haven’t been crowned via the dual meet format since the 2011-12 season, and there’s always been a stark division in the wrestling coaches community between who prefers the dual meet format and who likes individual tournaments.
Sentes is in the latter group. Nine regular-season matches don’t give his wrestlers the amount of experience he’d like.
“It’s definitely a challenging year because I’m a tournament guy. I’m not a dual meet guy,” he said.
Still, the Whalers proved their coach wrong and surprised themselves right from the opening meet. On May 8, they tied perennial Tri-Valley League champion Norton, 36-36. Two weeks later, they defeated Division 1 North stalwart Shawsheen Tech, 40-36.
Could that be a potential state final?
“That win over Shawsheen was unexpected,” said senior 145-pounder Jizaiah Lopes. “I didn’t think we were going to do as good as we did, but we came in and took over.”
It’s all part of New Bedford’s mantra to go after the tough match.
“All of my seniors, they want the tougher matches. They don’t want the matches where you go out there and get the pin really quick,” Sentes said.
To combat the lack of time competing, New Bedford has doubled down on proper drilling techniques in practice, an approach that has benefited its underclassmen. The program, although down in numbers due to the pandemic-affected season, still has approximately 35 wrestlers, and only five are seniors. Seniors Edgar Martinez (182 pounds) and Damase Amaral (113 pounds, state placer in 2020) and Jacob Duval (126 pounds) also help shoulder the load of getting key team points in dual meets while shepherding New Bedford’s freshmen and sophomores.
“Drilling can be easy, but it can be hard if you make it hard,” Sentes said. “Our sophomores and freshmen are seeing the way you should be working in practice so it’s kind of a blessing in disguise for them, the shorter season.”
But the Whalers, as noted, packed their short season with the toughest competition they could find. Outside of their league meets with Brockton, Bridgewater-Raynham, and Durfee, and others against Norton and Shawsheen, New Bedford closes its season with a meet Saturday against Whittier Tech, another solid CAC program, and a tri-meet with Norton and Division 2 South stronghold Hingham next Saturday. It’s a schedule certainly not fit for an underdog, but the Whalers do believe it leaves more room for surprise and allows for more eyes to be opened once the postseason begins.
Like any good underdog, they’ll take on all comers.
“It’s like a machine,” Lopes said. “Once the gears started moving, we just wanted to dominate and get up there with the better teams.”
▪ On Wednesday, a poster took to the reputable MassWrestling.com forum, where coaches and other wrestling officials discuss tournaments, schedule matches, and more. The title of the thread was ‘Most Successful Year in New England Wrestling History?’ That discussion may be completely subjective, but a group of elite local wrestlers from Doughboy Wrestling Club in Lowell gave credence to that opinion over Memorial Day weekend.
The Doughboy team, coached by Melrose assistant Nick Gamble went 7-2 at the NHSCA National Duals in Virginia Beach, Va., at the same site where many of the club’s wrestlers achieved All-American status last month. The Doughboy group placed in the Top 24 among 167 participating teams, went 3-0 in its first pool last Friday, 2-1 in the winners’ pool on Saturday, and 1-1 on Sunday. EMass wrestlers on the team included Waltham’s Dante Distefano, Danvers’s Max Leete, Burlington’s Cam Soda, Saugus’s Chase Ledbury and Doug Clark, and Acton-Boxborough’s Chase Anestis. Distefano, Leete, and Soda were individual NHSCA All-Americans.
“I’m really proud of how they wrestled. They beat some of the best teams in the country,” Gamble said.
▪ The MIAA Tournament Management Committee on Thursday approved the dual meet sectional and state tournament format, and allowed wrestlers to have a two-pound weight allowance before participating in pre-match weigh-ins. Seeding is Wednesday, June 16, and Thursday, June 17, and the opt-in date is Thursday, June 10.