WALDOBORO, Maine — Watching Travis Spencer break down an opponent on the wrestling mat requires focused attention, because it’s usually not a gradual process.
Even against the top rivals in his 189-pound weight class, the Belfast Area High School senior requires just the slightest of opportunities before he not only secures the takedown, but often takes his opponent from a standing position to his back with a singular move.
“He’s an unusual athlete,” said longtime Belfast wrestling coach Ted Heroux. “He’s a big kid at 6-foot-2 and 189 pounds, and he’s quick as a cat. It doesn’t matter what weight class it is, he’s one of the quickest kids on the team, he’s physically strong, and he loves wrestling.”
Spencer also is in line to join an elite group of 11 Maine schoolboy wrestlers — and the first in Belfast’s storied wrestling history — who have won four individual state championships during their careers. He’ll compete for his fourth title Saturday when the 2009 state championships are held at the Augusta Civic Center.
Spencer will be the heavy favorite in his weight class — he boasts a career record of 170-9, with just one loss over the last three seasons, and he enters the state meet with a 36-0 record this season.
“Travis is one of the better wrestlers in the country, not just here in Belfast,” said Heroux. “Any high school in the nation would love to have him on their team.”
Spencer has the results to back up Heroux’s declaration, having finished sixth in his weight class at last year’s junior nationals, and earning a third-place finish at the 2008 New England championships.
“He’s very confident. He’s not cocky at all, but he’s very confident,” said Camden Hills of Rockport coach Levi Rollins. “He’s a good all-around wrestler and he’s worked hard all the way up through. He eats, drinks and sleeps it all year long.”
Spencer first took up the sport at age 4 and quickly developed within the Belfast youth program, helping his middle school team win a state championship as an eighth-grader, when he placed second in New England at 141 pounds.
Competing at that lighter weight helped Spencer develop the quickness that is such an asset for him today.
“Wrestling those quicker kids taught me how to be light on my feet,” Spencer said. “Most of the bigger kids are a lot heavier on their feet, so that’s to my advantage.”
Spencer moved up in both weight and experience upon joining the high school team, and as a 160-pound freshman he suffered his share of hard knocks — including eight early season losses.
“I had been wrestling at 141 in middle school, and when I moved up to 160 as a freshman I was wrestling mostly seniors and juniors,” said Spencer. “It was tough at first, but it did get me ready for the later years.”
Spencer came on strong late in the season, and used his quickness to wrestle his way to his first state championship with a 4-3 survival of York’s Buddy Gauthier in the 160-pound final.
“I remember to this day me and [teammate] Zach Shellabarger talking about it when we were freshmen,” said Spencer, “that we were just hoping to make the states, and what a big thing that would be.”
A growth spurt ensued, and so did a determination by Spencer to add more strength to his technique-oriented wrestling style.
So he turned to his father Jim, a former New England bodybuilding champion.
“He’s always helped me,” said Spencer. “I’ve been going to the gym with him since I was a little kid and always lifted with him, but my sophomore year we really began focusing on building up my strength.”
That commitment led Spencer to move up two weight classes to 189 pounds, and the combination of inherent quickness and enhanced strength has been virtually unbeatable.
“He’s just so quick with his reactions, with the set-up aspect, and in moving a kid to put him in position to take him down,” said Belfast assistant coach Mike Cummings. “In most matches he’s taking a kid with that first takedown from his feet to his back, and when you start out five points ahead it’s easy to open up a little bit.
“The biggest thing is he’s so tough on his feet, and then he is so confident with his defense that it allows him to open up his offense.”
Spencer went undefeated as a sophomore, but not unchallenged.
“I had to wrestle Ollie Bradeen [of Camden Hills of Rockport], and I was pretty nervous about going up against him because I knew it would be a close match,” Spencer said.
Those two battled throughout the postseason, but Spencer emerged victorious by decision at both the Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference and Eastern Maine Class B championships, and by pin at the state final.
Spencer swept through the conference, regional and state meets again last winter, and went on to help Belfast win the Class B team championship as well as finish third in the New England team standings.
This year has produced more of the same success.
“His strength has grown, and his knowledge of wrestling has grown because of all the experience he’s had in-state and out of state in the New Englands and at the nationals,” said Heroux. “He makes very few mistakes out there. A kid can’t take advantage of him, and if Travis gets taken down he’s right back on his feet again because he’s so quick and strong they can’t hold him on the mat.
“And as many times as he’s been taken down in four years, you can probably count them on both hands.”
One highlight of Spencer’s senior season has been to break the school record for most career victories — formerly 155 as set by older brother Jimmy, a two-time state champion who competed in the lower weight classes between 2005 and 2008.
“It’s going to take one tremendous athlete in wrestling to break that record,” said Heroux, “because you don’t know how many dual matches you’ll get assigned to each year, and you’ve got to win a lot of tournaments, the conference, regional and state tournaments and the big tournaments down south.”
Spencer hopes to add to that win total Saturday, with his chief competition expected to be Western B titlist Nick Wells of Oak Hill of Sabattus — whom Spencer already has pinned.
But while Spencer’s wrestling goals include adding another individual and team state championship, they’re not limited to what happens this weekend.
“I’m really hoping to do well at nationals and the New Englands,” said Spencer, who hopes strong performances at those meets will lead to a Division I college wrestling future.
If his resume to date is any indication, it will take a very tough opponent to deny him those aspirations.
“Travis is hard to deal with,” said Cummings. “He’s a handful.”