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Worth the Trip: Hartford Wrestlers Take A Long Road to Success

  • Hartford’s Nolan Viens, center left, hangs out with friends as wrestling practice winds down at Bellows Falls Union High School in Westminster, Vt., on Tuesday. Viens wields a 33-1 record for the Bellows Falls-Hartford co-op team. (Valley News - Libby March)

    Hartford’s Nolan Viens, center left, hangs out with friends as wrestling practice winds down at Bellows Falls Union High School in Westminster, Vt., on Tuesday. Viens wields a 33-1 record for the Bellows Falls-Hartford co-op team. (Valley News - Libby March) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Bellows Falls seventh-grader Spencer Clark, left, and Hartford eighth-grader Cameron Viens wrestle during practice. (Valley News - Libby March)

    Bellows Falls seventh-grader Spencer Clark, left, and Hartford eighth-grader Cameron Viens wrestle during practice. (Valley News - Libby March) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Bellows Falls-Hartford head coach Claude Weyant demonstrates a technique during practice. (Valley News - Libby March)

    Bellows Falls-Hartford head coach Claude Weyant demonstrates a technique during practice. (Valley News - Libby March) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Hartford’s Nolan Viens, center left, hangs out with friends as wrestling practice winds down at Bellows Falls Union High School in Westminster, Vt., on Tuesday. Viens wields a 33-1 record for the Bellows Falls-Hartford co-op team. (Valley News - Libby March)
  • Bellows Falls seventh-grader Spencer Clark, left, and Hartford eighth-grader Cameron Viens wrestle during practice. (Valley News - Libby March)
  • Bellows Falls-Hartford head coach Claude Weyant demonstrates a technique during practice. (Valley News - Libby March)

Westminster, Vt. — Four years ago, seventh-grader Stephen Cerrone informed his father, Steve, that he wanted to enter youth wrestling with his friends, the Viens brothers.

“My son wanted to go down to practice. Little did I know it was in Bellows Falls,” the elder Cerrone, a Quechee resident, said with a chuckle.

Four years later, they’re still making the 90-minute round trip to Bellows Falls and back as the Hartford half of the Bellows Falls-Hartford wrestling team, where Steve Cerrone is an assistant coach. The victories racked up by the team may not equal the miles racked up on Cerrone’s odometer, but they’re not far off.

The success is preceded by the same daily ritual. Every weekday, the Hartford wrestlers and coaches make the journey from the Upper Valley down to Bellows Falls Union High, where they hold the team practices. But because the basketball teams dominate gym time, the wrestlers must set up shop in the school’s cafeteria. There, along with their Bellows Falls brethren, they clear the tables and chairs, drag out several purple mats and begin practice.

At practice, which also features middle school students, the intensity is matched only by the enthusiasm. The wrestlers run and jump rope when not on the mats. There are plenty of red faces and, occasionally, a cut or scrape.

When the session ends, the process reverses itself — the mats are put away, the tables and chairs are restored and the Hartford group makes the long journey into the Vermont night.

Drudgery? Hardly.

“It makes what we do that much more rewarding when we win,” Hartford wrestler Nolan Viens, 17, said. “We can’t take any of this for granted. We bust our butts down here so we can feel that elation when we win.”

Which is a frequent result, no matter where they go.

Despite carrying a nine-man roster — so small it has to forfeit in six weight classes at every meet — BFH is ranked fourth in the state, according to vtwrestling.com, a website that follows the sport. The team has even swiped a few wins from deeper foes in dual (team-vs.-team) meets, an example of quality dominating quantity.

The union was formed last year, when Bellows Falls needed wrestlers and Hartford was looking for a home for its grapplers — Stephen Cerrone, Patrick Labuda, Austin Viens and Nolan Viens.

The move paid instant dividends for everyone involved. The team sent four wrestlers to last year’s Vermont state meet, and all turned in top-four performances, which enabled BFH to place sixth overall.

“People are surprised at how such a small team can finish so high,” said Claude Weyant, Bellows Falls’ 17th-year coach and a captain with the Windsor County Sheriffs department. “To place in the meet is quite an accomplishment; to place all of them in the top four is huge, with our little band of warriors, so to speak.

“We’re low on numbers, but if your numbers are quality numbers, you can go a long way as a team.”

This year, the Hartford wrestlers are a combined 102-19, led by junior Nolan Viens’ 33-1 mark at 145 pounds. He was undefeated until he lost to a former Connecticut state champion at a meet in East Windsor Conn., last Saturday.

And Viens’ teammates aren’t far behind — Austin Viens (113 pounds; 29-6), Cerrone (132 pounds; 21-5) and Labuda (138 pounds; 19-7) have also turned in dominant seasons. Steve Cerrone and Mike Viens, Austin and Nolan’s dad, are assistant coaches.

“It’s quite a sacrifice for the kids from Hartford, and that sacrifice makes it even better,” Weyant said. “They really have gone the extra mile. It’s that love of wrestling that keeps them going.”

In an effort to avoid facing the same Vermont teams over and over, Weyant schedules road trips to New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts, and the team has more than held its own.

On Jan. 19, BFH wrestlers went 21-5 at the Franklin Tech Duals in Turner Falls, Mass., led by 4-0 performances from Cerrone, the Viens brothers and Record. A week earlier, the team was seventh out of 20 teams at a meet in Northbridge, Mass.

The influx of Hartford talent has forced the Bellows Falls wrestlers to improve, and vice versa.

“The competition is always good, especially with the quality of the guys coming in,” said Bellows Falls’ Kyle Record, a sophomore co-captain who sports a 32-6 mark this winter. “They’re pushing us and we’re pushing them, so it makes everyone a lot better.

“I see just during this year, everyone getting better and better throughout the season. The progression is easy to see.”

The meets contain more than just wrestling — there are weigh-ins, skin checks for cuts and infections, coaches’ meetings and a half-hour break between matches.

“For the meet in Northbridge, Mass., we had to meet the bus at 5:30 a.m., and we got home at 11 at night,” said Steve Cerrone, 57, a substitute teacher who also maintains the team’s unofficial website, vermontwrestler.com. “It’s a commitment. The ironic thing about wrestling is that the better you do, the longer you have to stay. But as a parent or coach, you don’t want to say, ‘Come on and lose so I can go home.’ ”

BFH stays closer to home this weekend, as it heads to Mount Mansfield tomorrow for a tournament. The state tournament is Feb. 22-23 at Vergennes Union High.

And this underdog tale may be far from finished. Next season, BFH anticipates the arrival of a talented group of eighth-graders, including a third Viens brother, Cameron.

“There are a lot of really good wrestlers in that group,” Record said. “It’s a huge jump — I made it — but I really think they can make the transition and make us a lot better.”

There is the tantalizing dream that Hartford, should it continue to churn out quality grapplers, could someday break away and form its own freestanding team. There are budget issues, of course. Hartford Athletic Director Joe James said the school sends some financial support to Bellows Falls, but a separate Hartford program would require plenty of support — financial and otherwise. James knows from personal experience what it takes to start up a program, being a teacher at Bellows Falls when the school started its wrestling program in the late 1990s.

“To have a viable program over here, we’d have to have 10-15 kids to show interest,” he said. “And the only way that could happen would be if something started at the lower levels.

“Personally, I’d like to see it.”

Steve Cerrone, the assistant coach, concurred.

“I could see that easily,” coach Cerrone said. “It’s just a question of establishing a junior program and getting that to foster a little bit. Once that junior program gets some steam, it goes from there. I’d love to see the program flourish here in Hartford, Lebanon and Hanover.

“You get a few people interested, you get a committee going and you can gain some steam.”

Dave Bailey can be reached at dbailey@vnews.com or 603-727-3218.

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