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Northern Tier Sports Report
It’s definitely a different year when it comes to wrestling, but for Towanda’s seniors, they wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

“I’ve been waiting all year for this,” said Clay Watkins. “It sucks because it’s different, but we’ve got to deal with it, push through it and get better.”

Routine is important for athletes and the Covid-19 Pandemic has interrupted that like nothing else. After starting practice late in early December they were put on hiatus for 3-weeks before getting in the mat room again. Now they’ll have just one week of practice after the lay-off before matches begin.

“We’re used to just grinding for two to three weeks then starting,” explained Watkins. 

“I’ve had a lot of ideas of how my senior year would be and this ain’t one of them,” remarked Evan Johnson. “But I’m just excited and ready to be on the mat.”

Watkins (215), Johnson (152) and Alex Perez (285) all know this is shaping up to be a memorable season, but they would also like it to be a season to remember in positive ways, too.

All three qualified for districts a year ago - Watkins and Johnson were in the North Section finals - with Watkins also reaching the Regional tournament at 195.

Now they all want to make it even further, all the way to the end of the line in Hershey.

“That’s the ultimate goal,” said Watkins. 

The elimination of 195 this year has forced Watkins to either drop to 189 or move up to 215, but he’s not deterred, opting to go up.

“I’ve had to bump up,” he said. “I put some pounds on and I’ll deal with it.”

His coach Bill Sexton believes it won’t be a problem for his senior.

“He’s weighing in about 211,” he said. “It can be his choice of where he wants to go - if he wants to stay where he’s at or if he wants to go back down. We have a whole season to figure that out.”

Watkins, a 20 match winner a year ago, is looking to improve on his feet this year.

“I was very bad at neutral last year,” he said. “So I’m trying to get better at that; trying to take more shots, trying to take more chances.”

Fellow North Section finalist Johnson, who was also a 20 match winner, expects to be at 152 but Sexton says he can have his pick this year.

“He can go 160, 152 and 145,” he remarked. “He’s been certified at 145, so he’s in good shape.”

Johnson did a lot of bumping around during the dual meet season, and expects to do that again this year.

“Last year I got comfortable weighing in light and sometimes bumping up to 160,” he explained. “It’s not anything new, and it’s something I’m ready for. I’m welcoming the challenge.”

Johnson is also working on his stamina for the year, getting his gas tank filled up.

“Definitely being able to wrestle more of a full three periods,” he said. “Keep the action going, keep scoring, and that’s been tough to do with practice getting pushed back. But I’ve done what I’ve been able to do.”

He’s also taking it all in, making sure to savor every moment, because any day it could be his last on the mat.

“I’m just trying to get the most out of each day,” said Johnson. “I’m just trying to get the most memories I have, make the most of my last year.”

Perez will be bumping up to heavyweight after wrestling most of the year at 220 last year, though he moved up for some dual meets.

“I wrestled a lot of heavyweight last year, so it’s not going to be much different,” he said. “I’ll have a little extra weight this year, so it will be easier, so I think it’ll be fine.’

Sexton is glad to have Perez anchoring the end of the line.

“Alex decided he wanted to be a heavyweight, which is probably a good choice,” said the coach.

After taking a step forward as a junior, Perez is looking to make another one this year.

“My focus this year is going to be on improving,” he said. “Improving the team and hoping we have a great season.”

He’s eyeing the regional tournament, though would love to make it to states.

“It really depends on your work ethic and how hard you work,” said Perez. “How dedicated you are our to putting in the work.”

Due the pandemic the state tournament has been cut back to just eight wrestlers per bracket, which means there will be a super-regional tournament that will not only include the Northeast Regional but the Southeast Regional - Districts 11, III, I and 12.

“It’s going to be tougher,” said Perez. “I know that for a fact, but all you can do is work hard and hope for the best. I’m just doing what I can do to get there.”

Sexton will be looking for these three seniors to lead his team through this trying sports season.

“They’ve all been here,” he said. “They’re all fourth year wrestlers here in the program. They’ve all had a good degree of success throughout their careers. Hopefully, they will lead by example and show other leadership qualities as the year goes on.”

They have a few more lettermen back, including Joey Vanderpool, Mykee Nowell and Garrett Chapman. Vanderpool and Chapman have battled injuries in their careers but, if healthy, Sexton knows they can shine on the mat.

“(Vanderpool’s) been a pretty solid wrestler for us,” said Sexton. “This will be his third year in varsity.”

Chapman will be a third year starter this year, too.

“He wrestled all last year with a broken hand,” said Sexton. “That showed a lot of guts and courage doing that. He really helped us out by holding a spot in the line-up for us all year long, even though he was damaged. I’m looking for good things out of him, too.”

Nowell, a crowd favorite, will also be in the line-up as a third year starter.

“Hopefully, he continues to progress for a kid that never wrestled before ninth grade,” said Sexton. “He’s showing some real growth, particularly at the end of last year. Hopefully, he can pick up and get it going.”

The Knights will once again be looking to compete for the NTL title. They suffered just two league losses a year ago - Canton (45-27) and Athens (36-33) - though they did beat rival Wyalusing (44-28).

Sexton knows that the title likely goes through defending champs Canton.

“They did lose a few good seniors last year, but they have some kids back,” he said. “I think they definitely will have the most depth of anybody. Athens has some quality individual kids. When you have a state place winner on your team that always helps you. And Wyalusing always has a solid program.”

The wrestlers, though, definitely have winning a league title as a goal for this season. But they also know, with how the year is shaping up, and, even though the regular season will be little more than a month long, they need to take it slow.

“We’re just going to have to push through,” explained Watkins. “We’ve got a saying this year ‘ win the day, do the best you can that day, get better every day.’”

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