SKOWHEGAN — The traditional Saturday evening drive to town held at least one surprise for those cruising up and down Madison Avenue last night.

Outside Hight Chevrolet, a bright orange wrestling mat, chairs and tables replaced the usual selection of new and used cars for the evening, causing passers-by to do a double-take and families walking to the convenience store next door to buy a gallon of milk to stop and take a look.

It was the final leg of four in the 33rd Maine-Nebraska wrestling exchange. Usually held in high school gyms around the state, Maine hosted the event outdoors for the first time (a meet scheduled for Rumford’s Hosmer Field on Monday had to be moved indoors due to showers).

Wrestlers and the fans who observed from lawn chairs and pickup truck beds couldn’t have asked for a better night — 70 degrees, a nice breeze and a few clouds but no threat of rain — to view the 23 matches between Team Maine and Team Nebraska.

Wrestlers and coaches were excited to compete in the unusual setting. They were also glad organizers had the foresight to roll out Skowhegan Area High School’s orange mat, rather than its black mat, in the bright July sunshine.

“A black mat would just take it to a whole other level of mat burn,” Skowhegan co-coach Tenney Noyes said.

It was Kam Doucette’s second time wrestling competitively in the great outdoors, but would go down as one of the Skowhegan 160-pound state champion’s most memorable experiences on the mat.

“I wrestled one time outdoors in Vermont,” Doucette said. “This is definitely cool because there are a lot more people. We all know each other. It’s sort of a friendly thing more than a competition, so that makes it that much more fun.”

“We’re right in town so a lot of people are going to come down. I know tons of people are coming down, actually,” he added.

Wally LaFountain, a Maine Wrestling Hall-of-Famer who started the series 35 years ago, said it is the longest in the nation between two states. The idea behind holding the event outdoors in downtown Skowhegan stems from one of the exchange’s missions — to promote the sport of wrestling and help it grow in both states.

Nebraska held a couple of outdoor meets when it hosted the exchange last year, and several of its wrestlers took part in an event called “The Rumble in the Railyard” in Omaha two weeks ago.

“We love it,” said Darin Garfield, wrestling coach for Central City High School in Central City, Nebraska. “People drive by and see it and it gives them a reason to stop. Any time you can showcase the sport is a great day.”

Team Nebraska went into Saturday night’s meet with a 2-1 edge in the series, which made stops at Marshwood High School in North Berwick, Mountain Valley High School in Rumford and Belfast High School before wrapping up in Skowhegan.

“It’s been pretty crazy,” said Koby Brandenburg, a wrestler from Central City. “We’ve been running around everywhere, doing something every day. I guess you only see Maine once. It’s been a blast. It really has.”

“It’s been a blast, the whole experience,” said Garfield, who was making his second trip to Maine. “This is our 10th day on the trip. Every area you go to, it’s kind of an all-star collection of wrestlers from the area. There are battles all the way through.

“But it’s about the cultural experience for our guys. It’s the same thing when Maine comes to Nebraska. You want these kids to see something they’ve maybe never seen before. The experiences our guys have had will last a lifetime as memories.”

Maine wrestlers added to their memory banks, too, over the last 10 days, getting to know the Nebraska contingent and adding another highlight to their own distinguished careers.

For Christopher Wilson of Nokomis, it was the second time walking onto the mat with a Nebraskan on the other side, having wrestled in the exchange as a freshman. Saturday’s meet was the 195-pound state champion’s last on a mat in Maine before he joins the Coast Guard. He heads to basic training on July 12.

“I’ve been looking forward to it,” Wilson said prior to winning the night’s opening match over Nebraska’s Jacob Johnson. “I’m going to wing it (against Johnson). I’ll try to pick up on his technique and hope it goes well.”

“Winging it,” and working out for boot camp, paid off for Wilson. He won the match, 9-2.

Regardless of how the meet played out under the setting sun, wrestlers and coaches from both sides formed bonds that will last long after the visitor’s are back in Nebraska.

“We got to hang out with them the last few days and it was pretty cool. I met most of them when I went out there last year,” said Doucette, who noted the outdoor meets in Nebraska last year took place on a football field and a river bank. “It’s an interesting group of guys. They’re all different. They’ve got one kid that’s, like, a cowboy. They’re all wicked cool.”

Randy Whitehouse — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter:@RAWmaterial33

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