AUGUSTA — The Cony High School wrestling team was a young squad last year. And for part of the season, the Rams wrestled like one.

“We took a lot of lumps early in the year individually,” coach Shawn Totman said.

Then came a breakthrough third-place performance in the Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference Class A championships, and overnight, things fell into place. By the end of the year, the Rams were second in Class A North, fifth in Class A overall and sporting a sparkling 22-5 record in dual meets.

The question now becomes whether the Rams can match — or even pass — those results this year. As Totman said, it’s a question that has been on his wrestlers’ minds. Has been for some time, in fact.

“These guys, all the way back in May and June, were stopping by my classroom talking about wrestling next year,” he said. “They didn’t sit back and say ‘OK, it’s going to happen again this year.’ These guys went out and worked their butts off to make sure we didn’t repeat last year, but we had a better year than last year.”

They’ll get a good impression of where they stand Saturday. Cony is one of 13 teams competing in the annual Tiger Invitational, hosted every year by Gardiner Area High School. Cony finished third in the tournament last year, and its wrestlers and coaches alike know it’s an early chance to get acquainted to the big-meet environment and measure themselves up against the competition — including defending Tiger champion Nokomis and Sanford — that they’ll be up against at the end of the year.

“You get to see what each team brings forth for each individual weight class, and who wrestles who and who does the best,” said 152-pounder Kayne Bowden, who wrestled in Gardiner before joining Cony in middle school. “You can kind of scout out your competition.”

It was against that competition that Cony began turning heads last year, and with a strong core of those wrestlers back Totman said he’s already seen the experiences on the sport’s biggest stages paying off.

“I have already seen a difference in their mat demeanor, the way they carry themselves, in our competitions so far,” he said. “Nothing’s new to them; they don’t seem like they’re quite as nervous as they used to be. They know what to expect.”

And make no mistake, the Rams expect a lot.

“I think we’re trying to feed off that performance, but I think we need to try to make a new name for ourselves,” 182-pounder Nic Mills said, “and try to even push past that point and do even better.”

The Rams are driven by a core of returners that made it to states last season. Jakob Arbour, a 138-pounder, was at 132 pounds last year and fourth in Class A and third in A North. Mitchell MacFarland (285 pounds) was fourth in both A North and the KVAC. Nick Sidelinger (195 pounds) was third at 182 in A North. And Mills has upped his weight after finishing fourth at 160 in A North.

The team also gets its biggest boost from the lightest class. Noah Dumas burst onto the scene as a freshman last year, becoming a KVAC champion at 106 pounds and finishing as a finalist in A North behind Skowhegan’s Cody Craig, whom Totman called one of the best lightweight wrestlers in Maine history.

Fitting in with his teammates, Dumas isn’t about to scale back the expectations after last season’s triumphs.

“That was definitely my goal last year to win (KVACs),” he said. “I expect myself to win this year. I’ll be disappointed if I don’t.”

Craig, who could still be in the 106-pound range by season’s end, would be a significant obstacle to Dumas exceeding his results from last year. But the sophomore has certainly put in the work to close the gap, wrestling in New York during the summer and participating in the Maine-Nebraska exchange.

“There’s nobody that’s been more dedicated to the sport outside of the season than Noah,” Totman said. “He’s been around some absolutely phenomenal wrestlers for the past six months. … He’s up to the challenge, that’s the thing. He’s not going to be intimidated by it.”

The team also has some promising newcomers, led by Aaron Lettre at 170 pounds and Bryant Lucas at 220. Totman said they’ve mixed well with the returning core — the team’s leaders have seen to it.

“We all have to be good as a team, working with each other, having good practice partners, setting the tone,” Arbour said. “We set the tone for everyone else on the team to follow. Younger kids, freshmen, even some other kids our age.”

But back to the question from the beginning: Can the Rams emulate the success from last year? For all the reasons they can, there are just as many caveats. Cony is still young, with Arbour, MacFarland, Mills and Dumas all having to take on those leadership roles as sophomores. And while coming close to winning is impressive, making up those final spots in the conference, region and state is the toughest task of all.

“These kids have never really won anything,” Totman said. “Second in the region is great, third in the KVAC is great, fifth in the state is great. But at some point, you’ve got to learn to win.”

Saturday presents a perfect opportunity to get started.

“I think tournaments like this are important because it teaches kids what we need to be able to do to compete for team titles later on,” Totman said. “So I think there’s valuable lessons in that this weekend. Hopefully we can do it.”

Drew Bonifant — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @dbonifantMTM

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