AUGUSTA — He went to wrestling meets to watch. He listened to his buddies talk about wrestling. He endured the prodding and pushing from fellow football players about wanting him on their wrestling team.

In the end, Lance Webb decided to finally give it a go. And Saturday’s Cony Duals — a 12-team dual meet tournament with up to five matches per team in a five-hour span — proved the perfect proving ground for a first-year wrestler with a steep learning curve ahead of him this winter.

“It seemed fun, and I always wanted to do it,” said Webb, a Madison Area Memorial High School junior, whose first high school sports experience was joining the football team this past fall. “I just never had the guts to actually go out and try it. It’s a lot harder than I thought it was going to be. It’s a lot different than watching it.”

Madison finished eighth in the final standings Saturday, despite being one of only two Class B teams participating. Winslow was the other.

“It’s a performance-based day for us,” said Madison head coach Scot Padelford. “I’ve got 15 kids, and seven of them have never wrestled before. It’s just working on the small things, the fundamentals. Any win is a good win, but learning from our losses and minimizing those mistakes we’re going to make is the biggest part.  We didn’t come in here expecting a lot in terms of team victories, but we had a lot of individual growth today.”

Webb certainly qualifies in that group.

In five matches, Webb went 4-1 in the 182-pound division Saturday. In his varsity wrestling debut a few weeks ago, he pinned his opponent in just 45 seconds.

“That was awesome,” Webb said. “I made it seem a lot easier than it actually was.”

In a rarity, Madison began the season with 12 wrestlers on its roster and gained three others after those students came out and watched the first meet of the season.

“Usually, it’s the other way around. You start with 15 and lose three after the first match,” Padelford laughed.

One of the plusses of the Cony Duals format is every wrestler is guaranteed to compete in up to five matches. In the usual format of tournaments focused on individuals, a majority of the competitors lose in the first round and are done for the day. Second-string and junior varsity wrestlers sit around the gym all day and often don’t even get to compete.

That doesn’t present much opportunity for improvement — or encouragement — early in the winter.

“You get in those pigtail rounds (at other tournaments), and it’s one and done, and they’re sitting around for eight hours with nothing to do,” Padelford said. “They get discouraged with wrestling and you end up losing a lot of kids that way. Here, it’s awesome that they give everybody a chance. It’s awesome.”

Now in its 20th year, one of the meet’s best traditions was incorporated less than a decade ago. Eleven schools enter, along with a 12th team featuring independent wrestlers from schools without a full-fledged team and junior varsity grapplers from bigger programs. That team, which started as a favor to a coach with low numbers nine years ago, blossomed into the underdog everybody roots for each December at the Duals.

“It happened by accident, but it’s one of the coolest things that’s ever happened in this tournament,” said Cony head coach Shawn Totman, who runs the tournament. “I think there were 24 or 25 kids on that B team. I saw some of the wrestling and it was really, really good.”

But the first-year wrestlers and the smaller programs weren’t the only ones who benefited from the Cony Duals.

Some of the Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference’s best teams were well-represented, and they took immediate stock of where they stacked up in relation to one another. In the three-team championship finals, reigning Class A state champion Mt. Ararat topped Cony, which beat Oxford Hills in a tiebreaker to get to the championship match. Skowhegan finished fourth overall.

“To be right in there with what I consider some of the best teams in the state, and certainly the best teams in the conference and the region, that bodes well for us,” Totman said. “That’s why I’m excited. If we can stay in there and duke it out with these guys, I feel like we can always duke it out with anybody. That’s the level of respect I have for these programs.”

More than seeing how his Rams measured up to some of the state’s best, though, Totman remains positively joyous over the Cony Duals. ‘Tis the season, and all.

“The spirit of it is all about wrestling and getting as many kids as many matches as we can throughout the day,” Totman said. “It’s so much fun. I don’t know if this has anything to do with it, but it’s the week before Christmas. It’s the last Saturday before the holidays, and I think kids get excited about that. Our boosters do such a great job (with concessions), and we get so many compliments about that. It hasn’t always been perfect, but I think we’ve been doing it long enough now that we put on a pretty good show. I’m just really happy.”

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