FCIAC

Strong Formula, Stiff Competition Have Kept Danbury’s Wrestling Dynasty Spinning

Danbury's Alec Marquis wrestles James Leuci of Newtown during a regular-season match. (Photo: Sue Hulse)

Danbury’s Alec Marquis wrestles James Leuci of Newtown during a regular-season match. (Photo: Sue Hulse)

By Emery Filmer

There actually is a formula that any search engine can find for building a sports dynasty, such as the one constructed by the Danbury High School wrestling team. Four, or perhaps even five, factors need to be in place:

— Execute a distinctive system for winning.

— Exhibit strong, consistent leadership.

— Create a positive environment.

— Hope for a steady talent stream to develop.

Having those four elements in place won’t guarantee anything but they should produce a solid foundation for getting a team to the top. A fifth dynamic, however, one that might not be found so easily on the Internet, could help keep you there: Find a threat to your throne.

Coach Ricky Shook’s Danbury wrestling team does indeed have that added benefit in the form of the Fairfield Warde Mustangs.

“The chase is always on with them,” Warde coach Jason Shaughnessy said, referring to his team’s annual runner-up status to the perennial champion Hatters. “Every year we aspire to chase them. I guess we’re here to keep them sharp. . . . But if they ever falter, we’ll be there to take it.”

Danbury freshman Jakob Camacho won the FCIAC championship at 106 pounds. (Photo: Sue Hulse)

Danbury freshman Jakob Camacho won the FCIAC championship at 106 pounds. (Photo: Sue Hulse)

Danbury’s amazing run of brilliance continued last weekend when the Hatters won the team championship at the Fairfield County Interscholastic Athletic Conference wrestling championships at New Canaan High School. It was the fifth year in a row the school took home the team title, but also its 28th FCIAC championship in the last 29 years. The one slip-up since 1987? That was in 2010 when Warde wore the crown.

“Our system works,” Shook said. “It’s a pretty consistent approach: Everyone who has gone through the program has been taught since elementary school by either me or (former Danbury coach) Mike Morris.”

After experiencing a couple of rare bumps in the road during the regular season, the Hatters went into the postseason with the usual lofty expectations. And sure enough, they emerged with another FCIAC crown after producing 10 finalists, six of whom took home individual championships. With Johnny Garcia (182 pounds) and freshman Jakob Camacho (106) leading the way, Danbury finished with 293 points and Warde was second with 222.5.

“With Danbury losing twice during the season (in non-league meets against Xavier and New Milford), we thought we had a shot but we left the FCIACs somewhat disappointed,” Shaughnessy said. “We scored as many points as we have in any other year and placed 12 wrestlers, with four of them winning championships.

“So, it’s frustrating for us,” Shaughnessy continued. “Year after year Danbury is the best in the state, not just the FCIAC. I ask Ricky a lot, ‘Why don’t you guys join the SWC?’ ”

Danbury’s FCIAC champions besides Garcia and Camacho were Victoria Goncalves (99 pounds), Aaron Occhipiniti (113), Jeremy Fields (120) and Marcus Joyner (220). The Hatters’ four FCIAC runners-up were Paulo Freitas (126), Justin Peterson (132), Will Mills (145) and Eric Henry (195). Goncalves became the first female to win a league title.

Danbury's Justin Peterson competes against Warde's Tim Kane. The schools are the FCIAC's top two wrestling programs. (Photo: Sue Hulse)

Danbury’s Justin Peterson competes against Warde’s Tim Kane. The schools are the FCIAC’s top two wrestling programs. (Photo: Sue Hulse)

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Warde’s four winners were Tim Kane (126), Charlie Kane (138), Dan Ebert (145) and Alex Lobsenz (195).

As if the FCIAC streak isn’t impressive enough, though, the Hatters have also been dominant in Class LL and State Open competition. The Hatters won the LL crown 14 years in a row from 1997 through 2010, and again in 2013. Also, since Shook became head coach in 2000, they have won 12 of the last 14 State Open championships (2001-2010, 2013-14).

There’s more. Danbury has not lost a dual meet in the FCIAC since 1986, an incredible winning streak that is now at 377 and counting.

A perfect example of Shook’s system might be Camacho, a freshman.

“I started wrestling in first grade,” said Camacho, who will take a 39-2 individual record into the Class LL meet this weekend at Trumbull. “In elementary school it was all fun, but then when I got to middle school it was serious. By the time I got to 8th grade, I knew what my goals were.”

And therein lies one of Danbury’s greatest advantages.

“They get freshmen who perform at the highest level and who are game ready,” Shaughnessy said. “Honestly, for us the battle is lost before high school.”

Coach Ricky Shook has built the Danbury wrestling program into one of the FCIAC's top sports dynasties. (Photo: Sue Hulse)

Coach Ricky Shook has built the Danbury wrestling program into one of the FCIAC’s top sports dynasties. (Photo: Sue Hulse)

Warde has certainly done its part in pushing Danbury over the years, especially since Shaughnessy took over in 1997. The Mustangs had a losing season that first year but not since. Under Shaughnessy, besides the one championship in 2010 the Mustangs have been runners-up to Danbury seven times during the last 10 years. Warde has also won the Class L state meet three times (2006, ’09 and ’10).

“Warde has been a great rivalry for us for 15 years,” Shook said. “They’re a good team every year and Jason is a good man and one of my best friends. They’re trying to catch us every year and to his credit he did it once.”

Shaughnessy can only imagine what their FCIAC championship banner might look like if Danbury wasn’t in the Mustangs’ way.

“Ricky is a good coach, a good manager and a good friend,” Shaughnessy said. “It’s all about structure. He has the youth program and the high school program in place, and he builds around that. Some teams are good for a couple of years but that’s not a program. It takes more than good athletes to maintain winning.”

Yes, even a freshman knows that.

“Continuing the dynasty is very important to us,” Camacho said. “There’s a lot of pressure on us but we have to keep it going. It’s a great feeder program as we’ve all been wrestling since elementary school, so we’re all dedicated to the sport. The more we wrestle, the more we love it. The more we love it the more dedicated we are. That’s what makes a dynasty.”

That, along with a few other things.

“A lot of hard work, getting everyone on one page and having a common goal right from elementary school does it,” Shook said. “We can’t have a lot of egos. It’s about pride. We talk about the history of the program every year. We have a great system — we have guys coaching kids in middle school who are products of our system. But we also have to have the right people and the right parents for it all to work.”

And having that arch-rival pushing them every year doesn’t hurt, either.