An interesting aspect of Rhode Island high school wrestling is the traditional powers typically avoid one another until the final month of the dual-meet season, choosing to compete in out-of-state tournaments in December and January before taking each other on during February.
In wrestling, familiarity isn’t a good thing. Nobody likes to tip their hand before the pot gets big enough to mean something.
Defending state champion Cumberland and top contender Warwick Veterans have saved their dual-meet encounter for Feb. 16, just nine days before the state tournament begins at the Providence Athletic Center.
The Clippers begin the tough part of their dual-meet schedule on Feb. 3 when they visit perennial power Cranston West. Six days later, they travel to Bishop Hendricken, the No. 4 team in unofficial state power rankings.
Cumberland hosted its own tournament on Saturday, bringing in several quality out-of-state schools to raise the level of competition in the John D. Gorman Memorial event. Cumberland successfully defended its team title and crowned three individual champions – Shai Lariviere (119), Erik Travers (130) and Jon Maccini (135).
Several of Saturday night’s championship final bouts could be repeated in early March during the first few rounds of the New England championship meet. Shai Lariviere might see South Windsor’s Sam Odell, whom he defeated 5-1 in Saturday’s finals. Twin brother Shoneil would certainly hope to avenge his 6-3 loss to South Windsor’s Brandon Lopez during the New England tournament.
At the higher levels of competition, wrestling is about matchups and knowledge of an opponent’s style, which is one of the reasons why the elite Rhode Island schools wait until February to compete against one another. Scouting reports are important but nothing is more revealing than facing a strong opponent and learning strengths and weaknesses, filing away notes for future battles. A battle lost one night can turn into a bigger victory down the road.
Both South Windsor wrestlers stayed away from the strengths of the Lariviere twins, who no longer can surprise opponents with their variety of headlocks, throws and quick takedown moves. The twins have been wrestling at a high level ever since their freshmen year. The scouting book on them has a lot of pages and is passed around New England. That’s the price of success. Familiarity doesn’t breed contempt in wrestling. It just means there are fewer secrets left to discover on the mat.
Cumberland sophomore Erik Travers is another wrestler who is gaining respectful attention from opponents. As a freshman, Travers wrestled tough during the dual-meet season and placed at the state meet as a rather lanky 103-pounder. This year, he has grown into a strong 130-pounder who won Outstanding Wrestler honors at Saturday’s tournament. Travers pinned four foes in a combined time of 6 minutes, 55 seconds.
“When he gets in on a leg, his opponents tend to go north,” Cumberland coach Steve Gordon said. My guess is he meant they go south but you never know with wrestling coaches. Outsiders like myself can watch a lot of wrestling and never begin to scratch the surface of knowledge that wrestlers and coaches accrue during the course of their careers. You only learn wrestling by doing it. Many high school athletes in other sports have learned a hard lesson when they tried to take on an experienced wrestler in gym class. Knowledge is power on the mat.
Travers may already be one of the top four wrestlers in his weight class at the state level. Unfortunately, three-time state champion Mike Myers of Warwick Veterans is still around, wrestling this year at 130 pounds. Myers lost a match in New Hampshire earlier this month, which is notable because that is only his second defeat in four years of high school wrestling. His first loss came as a freshman in the finals of the New England championship.
Myers has since won two New England titles. He has been the best wrestler in the state for the past two seasons and stands alone this year, above even Shai Lariviere, who has lost fewer than 10 bouts in his high school career.
Erik Travers can only hope to learn from Myers when and if they wrestle on Feb. 16 in the season’s final dual-meet. With a little luck, Travers might even face Myers at the state meet, giving him two chances to learn about wrestling at a very high level.
Gordon says that kids like Erik Travers have seen their skills advance just by working on offensive moves and counters every day in practice with the Lariviere twins. Wrestlers get better when they compete against teammates and opponents who are better than they are. That’s why out-of-state tournaments are scheduled by ambitious coaches. It is also why the state meet has so much meaning.
Rhode Island wrestlers traditionally do not fare well in the New England championships. The state has gotten better in recent years but the sustained success of someone like Mike Myers is very rare. There is more competition among more schools in states like New Hampshire, Connecticut and Massachusetts. A New Hampshire wrestler might face 10 really tough opponents inside his own state. That doesn’t happen in Rhode Island, where a tough weight class is one where two or three strong wrestlers reside.
Shai Lariviere won a New England crown at 103 pounds two years ago but finished third at 112 last winter. This year, he is up to 119, important because college weight brackets begin at this class. He will run into physically stronger opponents at 119 pounds, especially in the New England meet. Lariviere will have to be at his physical peak in March if he hopes to add a second New England championship to his resume.
Shoneil Lariviere showed a crack in his armor on Saturday. During a 12-2 victory in the 125-pound semifinals, Shoneil became openly exasperated by his opponent’s stalling tactics. It is actually a measure of respect when a decent wrestler’s goal is to avoid a pin against a superior foe. The superior wrestler would normally just accept the fact that his opponent is going to act like a fish and spread-eagle his arms and legs on the mat to avoid getting decked.
Shoneil let his foe’s submissive behavior get into his head, and even though he won an easy decision, Lariviere seemed to carry his frustration into the title match three hours later. Shoneil got taken down twice, which never happens. That was the difference in his 6-3 loss to South Windsor’s Brandon Lopez, who was pleased to score an upset victory.
If there is a difference between the twins, it is that Shai is a superior clinical wrestler. He rarely gets caught off-balance. Shai may also be a bit cooler in the head. This is just my opinion, based on what little I know of the sport. Steve Gordon might differ with this viewpoint. Bob Gibbons, stepfather of the twins and their coach at Northeast Elite, would certainly have a more qualified opinion on this subject than I do.
But it is something to consider as the twins try to finish their high school careers with the best performances of their young lives, not only at the state meet but at the New Englands, where nothing comes easy, and where everyone knows your name, and your style of wrestling.