ELLSWORTH, Maine — As Jared Bragg made his way onto the wrestling mat late Saturday, both his opponent and the stakes were big.
The Ellsworth High School senior gave away more than 35 pounds and four inches of height to Fryeburg Academy’s Andrew Lyman as they prepared to battle for the 285-pound championship of the McDonald’s-Mountain Valley Invitational meet in Rumford.
“When he weighed in at 264.9 I thought to myself, ‘he’s a big guy,’” said the 5-foot, 10-inch Bragg, who weighed in for the day at a mere 228.9 pounds.
Ellsworth needed Bragg to win the match by pinfall in order to secure the meet’s team championship and continue an early season effort that has the Eagles being considered among the top Class B wrestling programs statewide.
And Bragg delivered, pinning Lyman in the second round pin to give Ellsworth a 136.5-136 victory over perennial Class A power Noble High School of North Berwick.
“He really didn’t know it was for the title, we kind of thought Noble already had it,” said Dan Ormsby, who shares head coaching duties for the Eagles with Travis Hardison. “It was a David versus Goliath match. He was fighting a mountain of a guy but we just told him to go out, work the upper body and when he starts breathing hard to go get the takedowns.”
Three other programs of championship ilk — host Mountain Valley High School, three-time defending Class C state champion Foxcroft Academy and Dirigo of Dixfield — were next in the 16-school field.
And with the McDonald’s victory coming just one week after Ellsworth swept defending Class B state champion Camden Hills of Rockport, Foxcroft, Belfast and Medomak Valley of Waldoboro at the Belfast Duals, the Eagles are flying high.
But there’s also a broader mission for this team this season — it’s not only competing for a championship, it’s also wrestling for a cause.
Two team members, brothers Joe and Josh Wright, lost their mother to breast cancer in August 2000.
Since then, the Beth C. Wright Cancer Resource Center has been established in the city in their mother’s memory as a source of information, social services and compassion for cancer patients and their families throughout Hancock, Penobscot and Washington counties.
Even before her death, Beth Wright started a support group at Down East Community Hospital in Machias. She later created the Choose Life Foundation, an effort that evolved into what is now the Beth C. Wright Cancer Resource Center.
It’s an effort the family has continued to support, and with the two Wright brothers as well as their father, assistant coach Wayne Wright, now part of the Ellsworth wrestling program, the Eagles have adopted the center for a seasonlong “wins and pins” fundraising effort.
Ellsworth wrestlers were encouraged to seek out individual and-or corporate sponsors from within the community, with some giving set amounts to be donated to the center while other contributions could increase depending on a wrestler’s number of wins and pins.
The team also is selling car magnets and T-shirts that reflect the effort at its meets.
“Our team is just a big family,” said Bragg. “Being a family means when someone needs help we’ll help them out.”
And everything is based in pink and black.
“Last year we were at a tournament and coach Ormsby and I were sitting together and a kid came out to wrestle wearing one pink sock and one black sock,” said Wayne Wright. “We kind of chuckled and thought, ‘I don’t think I’d be wearing that unless it was for a cause.’”
Soon a cause was born.
After gaining support for the idea from members of the wrestling team and the school, Wright, owner of Coastline Homes in Ellsworth and Hollis, purchased new singlets for the squad and suddenly the Eagles were competing in pink and black.
“It’s a good cause, and these kids love wrestling for a cause,” said Ormsby.
The team has set no financial goal for its ultimate donation to the cancer resource center, but Wayne Wright is hopeful the effort could generate $5,000 or more throughout the season.
“For my sons who are on the team, this is pretty inspirational for them,” he said.
One reason for that optimism is the strength of the Ellsworth program.
The Eagles are 27 wrestlers strong, including defending 220-pound Class B state champion Michael Garland and three other returning Eastern Maine champs in Bragg, Joe Wright and Dagan Berenyi, a transfer from Belfast who as a freshman last winter placed second in the state at 120 pounds.
Berenyi (now at 132 pounds), Garland (220) and Bragg (285) all won individual titles at the McDonald’s-Mountain Valley Invitational last weekend, with Garland’s championship-round victory over Corbyn Bruce of Foxcroft Academy the 100th win of his high school career.
Also winning his weight division was 138-pound freshman Trent Goodman, an All-American as a middle-school wrestler last winter with his fourth-place finish at the Panhandle Nationals in Lubbock, Texas.
Robert Banner finished third for the Eagles at 126 pounds, while Noah Robidoux (113), Scott Parr (138) and Jeff Weeks (182) each placed fourth.
The Eagles’ current success is relatively newfound. Ellsworth won back-to-back Class B state titles in 1981 and 1982 but then went nearly three decades without a significant tournament victory until winning the 2011 Penobscot Valley Conference championship.
The team has contended for conference and regional honors consistently since then — placing third at both the PVCs and Eastern B meets last winter — and the aspirations may be even higher this season.
That the Eagles are thinking of others as they pursue their competitive goals only adds to the optimistic aura.
“The kids have really stepped up with their attitude and work ethic and dedication,” said Ormsby. “This is what we’ve dreamed of all along, not only being successful on the mat but also doing it with good sportsmanship.”