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SILVER SPRING– To hear senior Aimrick Nya tell it, the Springbrook High School Blue Devils wrestling team are like a United Nations, consolidated under an umbrella of brotherhood and nurtured by coach Rob Whittles, prepared to take on the best from the county’s wrestling community.
Nya is from Cameroon, on a unified Blue Devils’ squad of athletes representing the Dominican Republic, Gambia, Haiti, Lebanon, Liberia and the Philippines, among others.
“Coach Whittles is a great coach who really supports us. He will vouch for us on the mat as well as in school and makes us a family,” said Nya, a 285-pounder with A-average and plans to major in chemical engineering in college.
“When you don’t feel like doing that extra drill or running that extra mile, he’ll push you. Even if one of our teammates gets into trouble, he’ll send them down the right path. He’s really dedicated to making us better as wrestlers and as people,” added Nya.
The latest example was a 58-18 county non-divisional victory over visiting Montgomery Blair High on January 31, during which the Blue Devils (19-1) received pins from Nya; senior Sahid Antar (170); sophomore Matt Kilby (113); juniors Chinua Sabater (126), Edwin Peralta (152), Richard Nguyen (160) and Anthony Gomez (182); sophomore Mike Kilby (113) and freshman Grayson Wendel (120).
Junior Sayfore Sieh (132) and senior Jean Mehul (145) won by technical fall, and junior Pierre Jean (106), by the decision for the Blue Devils over the Blazers.
“This is the result of us coming into practice every day and not missing any, rotating on different practice partners for different looks,” said Sieh, who is from Liberia. “When you like a move, whether it’s a high-crotch takedown or a single, you stick to it and work it a thousand times over and over until it’s perfect.”
Winning for Blair were Brandon Ntankeu (195) and Elias Chen (220) by pin, and junior Kim (138), who was ahead, 18-4, when his opponent lost by injury default.
“I’m Dominican, but we’re all from multiple backgrounds,” said Peralta, a third-year wrestler. “We all treat each other equally, and we’re just collectively dedicated to working hard to motivate each other.”
The rout of the Blazers represents a continuation of an upward progression by the Blue Devils (19-1), who hosted and won their 15-team Grapple at the Brook Tournament on January 18-19 for the second straight time in the event’s 21-year history.
“The guys who are leaders on this team put in so much work during the summer,” said Mehul, who is Haitian. “We trained together and developed a stronger bond, and that’s the biggest difference between us this year and last year.”
What is further amazing is the relative collective inexperience of the Blue Devils. Only two Blue Devils’ wrestlers — Kilby and Wendel — competed before high school. Mehul, Antar and Nya, three of four regular senior starters, “all began the sport as freshmen and are fourth-year wrestlers,” said Whittles.
“Me and Pierre are brothers, and we came from Haiti like Jean Mehul. After meeting Mehul, he told me about wrestling and said I can join it if I wanted to,” said junior Dassaeve Jean, Pierre’s older sibling, who competes at 132-pounds.
“I tried out for the soccer team, and I didn’t make it. So, I started going to the open mat practices a lot and I liked it. I went to a tournament and got second place and I said, ‘Maybe if I keep working on it, I can get first place.’ That’s still a goal of mine, [is] to win my first tournament.”
Last season’s Blue Devils went 19-5 and were runners-up in the regional duals to eventual state champion, Urbana of Frederick County.
Antar’s 37-10 record at 160 was comprised of being third at counties, second at regions and fifth at states. Sieh was fifth at counties and third in the region at 120, and Pierre Jean was third at regions at 106.Nya was third at counties, and Dassaeve Jean, Mehul and senior Jason Strattonbey all qualified for regions at 132, 138 and 145 pounds.
“All of them are just very nice kids, super respectful, and they work hard,” said Whittles, whose parents, wife and two young sons are often in attendance at the Blue Devils’ events.“I think my family loves coming to the matches so much because they know how nice a group of kids we have. They really are a fun group of kids to coach and my family loves to watch them wrestle.”
At the Grapple At The Brook, Pierre Jean was the lone champion among the Blue Devils’ 13 top six-place winners, with runners-up in Antar, Wendel and Nya, third-place Dassaeve Jean, Sieh, Mehul and Piralta, fourth-place Kilby, and sixth-place Gomez, Strattonbey (138), junior Zay Lindsay (182), and junior Matt Bauer (220).
The tournament win followed a non-divisional 41-25 victory over Bethesda-Chevy Chase on January 16 as Springbrook rebounded from a 39-24 loss to county champion Damascus on Jan. 12. In losing to Damascus, the Blue Devils gained ground over the previous season, when they were routed, 67-0, by the Swarmin’ Hornets.
“As a whole, we’re a much better team, which really helps us in the dual meets,” said Antar, who is of Sierra Leonean and Lebanese descent. “I feel like from last year to now, we’ve worked so much harder at executing and eliminating mistakes, and we’re just gonna continue to move forward.”
Other Blue Devils, such as Sieh and Nya, similarly compete with more experienced wrestlers. Sieh led, 4-1, in an eventual 6-4 loss to Damascus sophomore Michael Emerick, a regional champion and state runner-up.
Nya led, 1-0, in an eventual 5-3 loss to Damascus’ Elijah Baisden, a returning county and regional champion who was state runner-up last season. It was Nya’s third career loss to Baisden, who will drop to 220 for the postseason tournaments, making Nya a favorite to win counties.
Against the Blazers, Jean’s 8-5 decision improved his series lead to 4-3 over sophomore Brian McCaw, a former junior league wrestler who won 35 matches and was fifth and fourth at counties and regions last year.
“I’m a new wrestler and he’s [McCaw] been wrestling a lot longer than me. I’ve been wrestling for only three years, and yet I can beat him, ” said Pierre Jean, a fourth-place finisher at last year’s Grapple At The Brook who lost a match earlier this year to McCaw.
“I listen to my coach, and he tells me what to do. Today, I got to work on my takedown shots [as instructed by Whittles.] I’m so happy that I beat him again. I believe that I just wrestled harder, and that’s why I think I’ve gotten the better of him,” he added.
With the varied levels of experience, Pierre Jean, Wendel and Kilby combine for intense rounds of practice workouts. Pierre Jean, Wendel and Kilby have each wrestled as high as 120, with Kilby and Wendel switching weights against the Blazers. Added to that, Kilby was a junior varsity county champion as a freshman, although he won four of six varsity appearances last season.
“I felt pretty strong that if I went up to 120, I could beat anybody they put out there,” said Wendel, son of assistant coach Rob Wendel, a Springbrook graduate. “But for the rest of the season, we’ll probably go back to our normal weight classes.”
Meanwhile, like Kilby, Gomez was a junior varsity county champion, although he’s only a third-year wrestler.
“I really didn’t plan on wrestling this long, but I fell in love with it,” said Gomez, a Gambian who often practices with Antar. “We go back and forth beating each other in practice, but I wouldn’t be this good. He’s a good teammate, just like we all are. It’s fun.”