PROVIDENCE, R.I., March 2, 2019 – It looks so easy from the stands. Our favorite wrestler heads out onto the mat and easily takes care of business. They’ve been winning all season long because they work so hard and good things come to those who work hard, don’t they?
But we forget that these are still high school students. A few are 18 but most are 16 or 17 years old. Some are as young as 14.
Ellis Tech wrestling Rafael Calixto was asked Saturday how his senior wrestler Sean Johnson was approaching this weekend’s New England championship tournament in Providence. “There is no pressure,” he said “It’s practice for college or whatever your plans are for the future.”
Johnson had won four straight Class M championships – an incredible achievement that only 10 other wrestlers in state history have done. But he had found victories at the State Open and New England championships elusive.
Johnson made the State Open finals for three years in a row. He lost each year by one point. A week ago, he fell to New Canaan sophomore Justin Mastroianni in the finals at 138 pounds. At the New England championships, Johnson had been eliminated from the title hunt the last two years with semifinal losses – including one defeat to Mastroianni last March.
“These kids put in a lot of time on and off the mat. I think sometimes we adults forget about that and put unnecessary pressure on them,” Calixto said before Saturday’s championship match where Johnson would face Mastroianni for the second week in a row. “It should be fun and they should enjoy this. It is a great experience for them.
“Sean has been wrestling well,” Calixto said. “He’s focused and he is having a good time in the tournament. This is practice for what he will do after high school. He has (National High School Coaches Association) nationals at the end of the month (in Virginia) and has college (next year). He’s just going out and having fun.”
Johnson’s idea of fun was winning a New England championship.
Leading 4-3 in the third period, Mastroianni was on top, riding him and trying to turn him. But Johnson escaped with 39 seconds left in the match to extend his lead to two, 5-3. A takedown with 26 seconds left lifted Johnson to a 7-3 victory over Mastroianni and a New England title.
His hard-fought victory also earned Johnson (45-1) the tournament’s outstanding wrestler award, too.
“I had to play smart. I had been warned for stalling once earlier,” Johnson said. “He was pushing on me. My favorite move is a duck under so if he pushed me, he was going to get ducked and that is what he got.
“I am in shock right now,” he said. “He’s a national champion (Mastroianni won the NHSCA Freshman nationals last March) and I lost to him last week.”
When preparing for the season, Johnson chose to wrestle at 138 pounds so he could face Mastorianni again. After dropping a 4-3 decision a week ago in the State Open final, Johnson was determined to make changes.
“When he shot in on me last week, I was just diving head on with him. This week I was taking angles on him,” Johnson said. “And he had that nice ankle pic that cost me last week (leading to a takedown) and that was with my left foot so switched it up and began leading with my right foot.”
Johnson took a 4-0 lead early in the second period of the final with a reversal and near fall that put Mastrioanni on this back. But Mastroianni didn’t lose his poise when he escaped to cut the lead to three after two periods.
Early in the third period, he got a reversal with 41 seconds remaining to cut the lead to one but Johnson escaped a few seconds later to take a 5-3 edge.
“It’s amazing,” Johnson said of the victory. “I feel like I am in a dream. It’s so crazy. It’s such an amazing feeling.”
Johnson (45-1) won five matches to claim the championship. It began with a 6-0 win over Mahari Miller of Springfield (Mass.) Central and continued with a 12-3 victory over Vermont champion Keenan Taylor of Mt. Anthony.
In the quarterfinals, Johnson beat the New Hampshire champion Nick Pallaria of Timberlane by technical fall, 17-2 in 4:50. In the semifinals, Johnson used a pair of takedowns to take command in a 5-2 victory over Massachusetts champion Ryan Garlitz of St. John’s Prep.
Truly a New England champion, Johnson beat four state champions on his way to the top of the podium.
Calixto said, “My hat goes off to Mastrioanni. He is a tough, tough kid. He’s a sophomore and he gave everything he had. It was exciting. You get two good kids going at it and not holding back. That is what wrestling should be. At the end of the day, both did their best. Sometimes, you win and sometimes, you lose.”
NOTE: Connecticut began competing at the New England championships in 1987. Johnson is just the fifth Connecticut wrestler to win the Outstanding Wrestler award. Windham’s Ed Lovely won the award in 1998, Ledyard’s T.J. Hepburn (140) in 2007, Shelton’s Patrick Gillen (215) in 2011 and Danbury’s Jakob Camacho (120) won in 2017.