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HIGH SCHOOL WRESTLING NOTEBOOK

Kings for a day: With tournament victory, King Philip a wrestling program on the rise

King Philip wrestlers (from left) Hunter Hastings, Dan Nineve and Will Conniff have sparked the team's strong start to the 2021-22 season.MARK STOCKWELL FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

The moment the bus turned into the McDonald’s parking lot, the King Philip wrestling team realized the magnitude of what it had just accomplished.

“McDonald’s?” coach John Adams said a few days after allowing his team a rare treat. “That’s unheard of.”

It’s equally unheard of for King Philip (2-1) to be winning tournaments such as the 15-team Whitman-Hanson Panther Invitational on Jan. 8, in which the Warriors (140.5 points) bested Milton (131) and the host Panthers (125.5).

“Only bracketed tournament win in King Philip history that I’m aware of,” said Adams, now in his eighth season at the helm. “That’s the first [team] championship trophy I know of, ever.”

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Adams served as an assistant at Natick and Bridgewater State, started the program at Hopkinton, and led Norwood before taking over at King Philip, where the wrestling program was in disarray when he arrived, having cycled through five coaches in three seasons.

“They were preparing to dismantle the program when I got here,” Adams said. “The numbers were low, with limited success.”

Hunter Hastings prepares to face off with King Philip teammate Will Conniff in a practice match.MARK STOCKWELL FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

The Warriors finished eighth in the Division 2 Central section and 39th at states in 2013-14, the year before Adams took over. By 2019, his fifth season, they placed third in their section and eighth at states.

Current seniors Will Conniff and Sam DeBaggis were freshmen on that team, and sophomores on the 2020 squad that placed fourth at sectionals and 10th at states before dipping to a 4-5 record in the dual-meet-only spring 2021 season.

“I’ve really seen it grow,” said DeBaggis, a 126-pounder who took second at Whitman-Hanson and third in the Milford Tournament on Dec. 11. “Our program has improved. We’ve gotten new recruits on the team and we’ve been able to showcase each other. As we’ve gotten better, people are seeing us and they’re like, ‘Why don’t I join this sport?’”

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Senior Dan Nineve is one of those latecomers. A football and baseball player since his youth — he’ll play baseball for Bridgton Academy in Maine next year — he was convinced to join wrestling as a sophomore because the team needed a heavyweight. After opting to play baseball over wrestling last spring, he returned this winter to anchor the 285-pound class. At Whitman-Hanson, the team’s fortunes swung on his final match. After falling behind, 6-0, Nineve caught his opponent, Whitman-Hanson’s Maddox Colclough, with a Peterson roll to secure both a second-round pin and the team title.

“A championship always feels good,” Adams said. “It’s wonderful. These guys did great.”

Senior Sam DeBaggis has been a part of King Philip's rise over the past four seasons.MARK STOCKWELL FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE
Dan Nineve's victory at 285 pounds was a key to King Philip's victory in the Whitman-Hanson Panther Invitational.MARK STOCKWELL FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

If the Whitman-Hanson win announced KP’s arrival as a contender, the foreshadowing came with a third-place finish in the Milford Tournament, where Conniff won at 170 pounds.

“I honestly didn’t know we would be as good as we are,” said the senior, who placed second at W-H. “I think our team has a great lineup. We have strong guys at every weight.”

The Warriors’ success has been fueled by the amalgam of a strong senior class, a deeper, more complete lineup, and the emergence of several underclassmen. Sophomore Colby Cloutier (152) and freshman Loden Wells (120) recorded top-three finishes in both the Milford and W-H tournaments.

“We have some really good underclassmen,” senior Hunter Hastings said. “Colby is going to be a beast when he’s a senior. Lodan is making a difference now. I certainly wasn’t doing that my first year.”

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If the Milford finish wasn’t evidence enough, KP nearly upset Franklin, one of the Hockomock League’s perennial powers, in a Dec. 22 dual meet. A missed weight at 220 pounds made the difference in a narrow 39-34 loss.

“That was a big match for us,” DeBaggis said. “That’s probably the closest we’ve been in years. I was proud of the team, even though we lost.”

Like Nineve, Hastings (195) is a football and baseball player who picked up wrestling as a sophomore. He took second at Milford before earning his first tournament victory at Whitman-Hanson.

“That was one of the best feelings,” he said. “It felt like everything was paying off. But it doesn’t mean anything until we get to the postseason. Those are the tournaments I’m looking forward to.”

And that’s where KP will face its stiffest tests, starting with the Hockomock’s Kelley-Rex division championships, which the Warriors have never won and where they will face defending champion Milford, 21-time champion Franklin, and a Taunton squad that just defeated Franklin, 37-27. After that comes sectionals — where North Attleborough has replaced Natick — and states, which are a little more wide open with Natick and Central Catholic moving up to Division 1.

“I see a lot of guys coming out on top in the section and the state,” DeBaggis predicted. “We have a lot of strength and unity. I just have confidence in everyone on this team.”

Near falls

Mark Vogel was not just a fixture in the North Attleborough wrestling community; he was the father of it.

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A lifelong martial artist and former assistant coach for the Red Rocketeers, Vogel founded the wrestling program in 1987 alongside dear friend Stephen Laskey, helping build the team into a state champion in exactly a decade. On Wednesday, a post on Facebook announced the North Attleborough Hall of Famer died following a battle with COVID.

“He was more than just a coach,” Laskey said. “He was the whole mentor, best friend, anything you need, how can I help you, anything to help these kids get to where they wanted to be.”

Vogel’s tenure at North Attleborough began at the first practice of 1987. While demonstrating technique to a room of quiet potential wrestlers, Laskey told Vogel to throw him as hard as he could. When Vogel slammed the coach into the mat, he had the room’s attention, and he never lost it.

“Mark became this living legend, kind of,” Laskey said. “He had a mystique about him that was very humble and quiet . . . He was just someone that the kids could rely on.”

The team won one match in the duo’s first year, but the room remained vibrant as the coaches established a foundation that would soon take off. In their 10th and final season working together at North Attleborough, the team hoisted its first state championship trophy, a milestone Laskey does not believe the Red Rocketeers would have reached without Vogel by his side.

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Laskey said they considered each other brothers and best friends since the days they shared the mat at Foxborough High. Outside of the wrestling room, Vogel worked as a senior animal rescue technician for the Animal Rescue League of Boston.

“We all loved him, and we’re all going to miss him forever,” Laskey said.

▪ Taunton’s Christian Balmain went into a quad meet with Norton, Mansfield, and Quabbin with 98 wins and on the edge of history. After defeating his first opponent and winning the second by forfeit, the senior became the second wrestler in program history to reach 100 wins.

Coach Adilson Galvao said Balmain is the first true captain the team has had in his 12-year tenure, embodying what it means to be a leader on the Tigers’ roster. Balmain now stands at 102 wins after another win this week against Franklin, 11 shy the program record of 113.

▪ Lincoln-Sudbury alum Sam Forman died Saturday following a snowboarding accident in New Hampshire. L-S assistant coach Joel Mode described the former team captain as “tough, resilient, coachable, hard working, and a leader on and off the mat” in a Facebook post. He held a career record of 104-27 and studied at Lehigh University after graduating in 2014.

▪ New Bedford’s Steve Sentes was named 2020-21 MIAA Wrestling Coach of the Year after guiding the Whalers to a one-loss spring season and a Division 1 state championship appearance.

Matches to watch

Saturday, 2022 Woburn Invitational, 8 a.m. — Woburn will welcome 17 schools, including Andover and St. John’s Prep, to its gym for one of the most highly-competitive invitationals of the new year.

Wednesday, Central Catholic at North Andover, 7 p.m. — The Merrimack Valley Conference contenders will face off in what promises to be an exciting dual meet.

Correspondent Ethan McDowell contributed to this story.