SMYRNA — Salesianum’s wrestling team led Cape Henlopen by 12 points in the DIAA Division I dual-meet championship on Feb. 18 at Smyrna High School, but a pin by Cape’s C.J. Fritchman at 175 lbs. meant the Vikings could tie the match with another pin at 190, the final weight class to be decided.
Salesianum’s Frank Miller and Cape’s Alex Taylor took the mat for their second meeting in a week. The previous Saturday, Taylor had decisioned Miller, 3-1. Miller came out and scored an early takedown, built a lead and was never threatened, winning by a 7-1 score. That gave the Sals, seeded fourth in the eight-team field, a 36-27 win and their first state wrestling championship since 1984.
It was the school’s first dual-meet championship; the current format was adopted in 1993. Salesianum became the first team outside the Henlopen Conference to win the Division I title since Saint Mark’s in 2010. This was the first time since 2011, when Saint Mark’s fell to Caesar Rodney, that a team not in the Henlopen reached the final. And the Sals were the first team seeded lower than third to prevail.
Miller, a junior, said he brought a totally different attitude into the state championship meet.
“Kind of got my feel back, got my spunk back,” he said. “I went out there, tried to have as much fun as I could. It was electric. Tons of fun. I figured if I did my stuff, I could win.”
He had the confidence of longtime Salesianum coach Cam Davis, who is in his 27th year with the program, 23rd as the head coach. Davis was not discouraged by Miller’s loss at fourth-seeded Cape the week before.
“I told him, ‘Go out there and wrestle. All you need to do is win this match. And you can win this match.’ And that’s what he did,” Davis said.
The meet started at 215 lbs., which is the domain of the Sals’ Max Agresti, the top-ranked wrestler at that weight in the state. He made quick work of his opponent, getting a pin in 29 seconds to set the tone for his teammates.
“Start things off for everyone. I’m a captain. I’m a leader on the team, and just get it right,” he said.
Agresti noted that the Sals had lost to Cape the previous Saturday in their final dual meet of the regular season, and they fell to Sussex Central the Saturday before that. They took down the top-seeded Golden Knights earlier Saturday at Smyrna before the rematch with Cape. He said the Sals needed to make a few adjustments for the postseason against those opponents.
“I just think we had to bring more heart, more grit. We had to fight for positions. It wasn’t technique so much as wanting it more than the next guy,” he said.
“That was our expectation. Grind it out. Every match, six minutes. Expect six minutes.”
Davis said the main thing he took out of the regular-season losses to Sussex Central and Cape Henlopen was that some team members were not wrestling to win, but to not lose. “And we refocused, we talked. And I said, ‘Don’t give up. There’s going to be another chance. This ain’t it. We get another chance.’ We take advantage of opportunities.”
His team had an “amazing” week of practice leading up to the semifinal and final, defeating fifth-seeded William Penn in the quarterfinal round of the state tournament along the way.
“We’ve got to practice like we want it, and that’s what we did,” he said. It’s not always easy, he continued.
“Wrestling is hard. It’s mental, it’s physical. It weighs on the kids, weighs on the families. But you’ve got to weather the storm.”
Sophomore Leo Marini fell to top-ranked Malachi Stratton of Sussex Central in the semifinals at 113 before bouncing back to pin Cale Baker in the final with four seconds to go in the first.
“It’s pure heart,” Marini said of wrestling two matches so close together. “You’ve got to love your brothers, that’s what it is.”
The length of time between state championships was not lost on Agresti. “It’s incredible to be a part of it. It’s been 30-some years, and I’m on the team. My four years, I was on the team that won it. It’s really special.”
Miller said having a banner hanging in the gymnasium and a trophy on display will provide motivation to future Sals.
“I have nine brothers, and I’m going to be going back coaching them, and I’m just going to be able to point to that wall and say, ‘You guys are next,’” he said.
“I can’t wait to celebrate with my brothers,” Marini added.
Davis said the championship belongs to the entire Salesianum family. They all put in the four things he said are necessary to succeed: hard work, effort, time and sacrifice.
“That’s what the team did. The kids, the parents, the school, the support. You have to have all those things. When you have those things, good things happen.”
All photos by Mike Lang.