CUMBERLAND — In states where wrestling holds a prominent place in the high school sports winter season -- Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Iowa come to mind – people flock to big dual-meets in large numbers. When two unbeaten teams meet, fans and coaches and former wrestlers fill the stands, contributing to a raucous setting not often seen in Rhode Island.
When Cumberland High hosted Warwick Veterans on Wednesday night in a showdown for the Division I regular season title, more than 1,000 spectators descended on The Wellness Center. Warwick transported a busload of fans and cheerleaders to the event.
“It was great,” Cumberland coach Steve Gordon said on Thursday morning. “We had to delay the start of the meet because the fans were still standing in line to buy tickets. Fans were two or three deep behind the benches. We had a lot of people standing for the entire meet. The Warwick fans were great, cheering for their team. It was just a wonderful atmosphere for wrestling. There’s no question the kids wrestle better in front of a crowd like that.”
Warwick had been considered a slight favorite over Cumberland, based on its veteran lineup.
“We lost three terrific wrestlers from last year’s state championship team,” Gordon pointed out. “I think some people around the state felt we would be vulnerable this year. What happened is we had several kids step up, especially Nick Maccini, who went from a .500 wrestler to a kid who is unbeaten in the state this year at 145 pounds. Nobody has worked as hard as Nick to make himself a better wrestler.”
After the first two matches were split on Wednesday night, Maccini pinned James Slack in 3:36 to begin turning the momentum of the meet in Cumberland’s direction.
“Nick has been outstanding,” Gordon admitted. “He’s still under the radar with a lot of people. I don’t know why he isn’t appreciated more.”
Warwick Veterans coach Mike Nappa inserted Slack into the lineup at 145 so he could bump the next five wrestlers up one weight class. It seemed like a smart move on paper. Cumberland negated the strategy by winning three of those five matches, including pins from Chris Smith at 160 and Andre Lussier at 189. Lussier pinned the state’s top-ranked 171-pounder, Nick Salois, using his 13-pound weight advantage to overwhelm Salois.
“The dual-meet was closer than the final score indicated,” Gordon said. “Things worked out pretty well for us when they made their changes. They did not pin us where they needed to pin us. Sometimes, losing by decision is as good as a win. My kids just seemed to be so relaxed and confident. I was the one who was going crazy before the meet.”
Gordon took microphone in hand to introduce his senior wrestlers right before the starting lineups were announced. Several of his seniors were wearing tee-shirts with the words “I Wrestled For Steve Gordon” stenciled across the back.
Gordon would be the first to tell you it is his privilege to coach these wrestlers.
“I told our seniors after the meet was over, when we were back in the locker room celebrating, that we have lost only one dual-meet during their four years with the team. We went undefeated three of those four years and lost only once, during their sophomore year to Cranston West. It has been my pleasure to coach those teams.”
The Clippers have been led these past four years by the Lariviere twins, Shai and Shoneil, who have provided a security blanket along with almost certain victory every time they wrestle. On Wednesday night, Warwick coach Mike Nappa knew he had two-time New England champion Mike Meyers waiting in the final match, if needed. Steve Gordon knew he had the two twins. Two is better than one. Double your pleasure has been Cumberland’s theme song during the Lariviere Era.
“They have been so important to our program,” Gordon said. “All of our seniors, really, have meant so much. Chris Smith had a big pin for us at 160 last night.”
Gordon knows there isn’t much time to celebrate. He will take his team to this afternoon’s college meet between top-ranked Cornell and host Brown. And then the Clippers, who finished 16-0 during the dual-meet season, will begin practicing for next weekend’s state championship tournament.
“Warwick Veterans will be tough,” Gordon conceded. “They will have their kids wrestling at their regular weights. We only beat them by a couple of team points at last year’s state meet. Cranston West and Bishop Hendricken will also be right in there.”
East Providence has two or three strong individual title contenders as well.
More so than during the dual-meet season, the state meet is about individual performance. The twins are the only Cumberland wrestlers favored to win their weight class. They might be joined in the finals by two or three teammates, which would be a fitting ending to a remarkable season for this latest Cumberland High powerhouse team.
MAT NOTES: Nappa said two-time New England champion Mike Meyers is okay after re-injuring his finger during Wednesday’s final bout, which ended in a double-default. “Mike had surgery on his finger (last week) and wasn’t supposed to wrestle,” Nappa said, “but I couldn’t get to him in time to stop him from going out there. He’s going to be fine for the state tournament.”