MONMOUTH — Deep in the bowels of Monmouth Academy, tucked down an artificially lit hallway, past captains and champions are honored.
Eric Coulombe. Aaron Kaluzynski. Mark McDonald.
All were two-time Class C state champions for one of the smallest wrestling programs in the state.
Their days have since come and gone at Monmouth but their legacies are protected here.
“We have a wrestling board, a wall of fame,” Monmouth junior James Gambino said. “It has the names of all the wrestlers who made big achievements for our school.”
Gambino pauses, if only for a moment.
“It’d be nice to walk by that and see my name on it someday,” he said. “Someday.”
Gambino, 17, is a junior. He’s been wrestling since sixth grade and hails from a wrestling-rich family.
His brothers — Ryan, 31, and Kyle Foyt-Bridges, 20 — enjoyed success wrestling for Monmouth. The confident Gambino, along with fellow junior Stewart Buzzell, leads the Mustangs into regional championships Saturday at Bucksport High School.
Buzzell and Gambino, who wrestle in the 138- and 145-pound divisions, respectfully, won individual championships at the Mid-State League Tournament last weekend. It was the first time Monmouth had a pair of champions at that event.
Gambino defeated Hunter Day of Fryeburg 8-4 to win his class. Buzzell edged Dirigo’s Jesse Hutchinson 2-1.
Now, they chase regional and state championships that would carve out their own legacies.
“Coming into this season I knew I’d have to work a lot harder than in previous years,” said Gambino, who is 23-5 this season. “I expect to place well at regionals. My ultimate goal is to be a state champ.”
Adds Buzzell, 16, who’s 24-4: “This is the time where you want to peak. This is it.”
It’s been a seesaw career for Buzzell, who also picked up the sport in sixth grade after failing to make the middle school basketball team. He missed the end-of-season tournaments his freshmen year because of a broken ankle. Then, he became ineligible at the end of last season.
Despite posting impressive numbers in each season, Buzzell — who is about 30 victories shy of 100 in his career — was forced to the sideline come championship time.
“I had a lot more time on my hands,” he said. “I did get to watch a lot of people’s styles, and I tried to pick up things. But it was tough. It was saddening. I still went to practices and helped where I could. I went to the state meets and cheered on the guys.
“This will be my first try at states. I feel like it’s my second chance. I don’t want to let it slip away. I’m working hard on the mat and in the classroom.”
Gambino, who is Buzzell’s practice partner, said his friend’s absence made it difficult.
“We are always pushing each other,” Gambino said. “It was kind of disappointing to lose him to injury and even more to eligibility. He was always there at every practice, but it was a lot harder without him.”
Monmouth, with just nine wrestlers, won’t contend for any regional or state team championships. However, coach Shawn Schultz said he is eager to see how Gambino and Buzzell will perform this weekend and beyond.
“They wrestle hard,” Schultz said. “They work hard in practice. You look over at them in practice and they are pushing each other. You can tell they really enjoy it. They’ve been able to get to the top of their classes. It’s how it is with these guys.
“So far this year, they have accomplished a lot. We’ve never had two Mid-State champions. That is a big deal for us. We’re one of the smallest wrestling teams in the state and we have trouble filling weight classes, so to have two guys do what they’re doing in one year is just great. Coming into regionals and states, I’m looking forward to seeing what they can do. They can beat everybody in their weight class.”
Gambino and Buzzell stroll down the hallway, a few hundred feet from an art room, and walk up to the wrestling hall of fame.
They point at the names and look at the pictures of past greats.
It’s all the motivation they need.
“We want to be up there,” Buzzell said. “We just keep working harder and harder. Maybe this will be the year.”
Bill Stewart — 621-5640