By Dave Dyer
HAVERHILL — The Haverhill High wrestling program, which as recently as 10 years ago, enjoyed a 19-3 record and was third in the Division 1 North sectional, has been terminated.
Because of low numbers, athletic director Garin Veris pulled the plug last month and informed other Merrimack Valley Conference schools of the decision, allowing them to replace the Hillies on their schedules.
Numbers have been low the last two years, forcing head coach Brett Legault to forfeit as many as half the weight classes. After a "show of interest" meeting Oct. 14 failed to produce enough candidates, Veris informed Legault the next day that there would be no program this year.
"We just didn't have enough wrestlers to continue the program," said Veris. "Hopefully, something can be done in the future to get it back."
That decision was tough to swallow for Legault, a four-year wrestler for the Hillies and an assistant or head coach for 11 years, and the few surviving wrestlers.
Legault was just as disappointed that Haverhill was not able to form a co-op team with nearby Whittier Tech. The schools had a co-op team back in the 1960s.
"When I had my evaluation meeting after the season, I told him (Veris) that it was in the best interest of the school to go co-op and Whittier was the obvious choice," said Legault. "And I have suggested it to him several times since then."
Veris did approach Whittier athletic director Kevin Bradley about the idea in the summer, and Legault got a favorable response from Whittier coach Rich Durkin about it, but Veris decided not to pursue it.
"It requires a lot of paperwork and information and it takes time," explained Veris, who is retiring on Nov. 9.
According to Pentucket athletic director Dan Thornton, who is involved with co-op programs with Georgetown in golf and hockey, the co-op application process does take considerable time.
But Bradley, who has a co-op with Amesbury for hockey, disagrees.
"I don't think it takes too long," said Bradley. "You just get the paperwork done, get it signed and to the MIAA and wait a while for the decision."
Whatever the case, the failure to be part of a co-op team is just as devastating to Legault.
"It's gut-wrenching that this could have been Haverhill's 55th year of wrestling," said Legault. "It's tough and to think we might have had a co-op team is very disappointing. I brought it up three or four times and it seems like a logical choice — Haverhill kids wrestling in Haverhill with kids they know."
Senior Jared Grazio, who has been wrestling for three years, is upset.
"It's disappointing because wrestling has done so much for me," said Grazio. "It's a sport that teaches you a lot and it's helped me with agility for soccer (as a goalie) and balance for baseball (as a catcher).
"I would definitely wrestle with Whittier so wrestling could stay alive. It's been an honor to be on a wrestling team."
Legault, who teaches math at the high school and is an assistant football coach this fall with Lawrence High, should be able to land another job, perhaps with Lawrence or Andover, which is currently seeking a head coach.
But Grazio, and other returnees like Parris Williams and Manny Vargas, are suddenly wrestlers without a team. It's possible that they may be permitted to compete as individuals in tournaments, but that remains to be seen.
Haverhill High wrestling
Years: 55 years, a few combined with Whittier in the 1960s
Team highlights: Finished 19-3 in 2001-02, enjoyed 258-177-6 record in 21 years under Chip Dunn.
Individual highlights: Had state champions in — most notably — David Leonardo, Isaiah Williams and Terrance Jean-Jacques, had New England champs in Peter Sturk (1969), Isaiah Williams (2009, 2010) and Terrance Jean-Jacques (2010)
Contributions to area wrestling: Active member of Merrimack Valley Conference, hosted multiple sectional tournaments and created the Haverhill Invitational in 1990, for years the area's most popular tournament