High school sports

Happy anniversary: McGonagle, wrestling match made in mat heaven

Owls Head resident wins junior national wrestling championship
By Mark Haskell | Jul 13, 2018
Courtesy of: McGonagle family Connor McGonagle stands in the number one, or top spot, at the national championship meet.

Plaistow, N.H. — This year marks the 10-year anniversary of the first time Owls Head resident Connor McGonagle put on a singlet and graced the wrestling mat.

And the now 18-year-old has made the most of that time — and then some — as he capped his junior year at Timberlane Regional High School in Plaistow, N.H. by securing the National High School Coaches Association (NHSCA) junior national wrestling championship March 23-25 in Virginia Beach, Va.

McGonagle, the top overall seed in the 132-pound class, emerged from a pool of 127 grapplers and went 7-0 in the tournament, as he pinned Bryce Nickel of Arizona at the 2:26-mark to win the national title.

Click link below to listen to audio interview with Connor McGonagle.

Prior to that match, McGonagle pinned Brian Caldwell of Massachusetts at 1:28 in the first round, pinned Ryan Tezzi of North Carolina at 1:44 in the first round, defeated Aidan Campbell of Kansas 7-1, beat Kyle Althenn of New York 9-2, beat Kyle Gollhofer of Georgia 5-1 and emerged with a hard-fought, 1-0 win over Martin Wilkie of Montana in the semifinals to advance to face Nickel.

McGonagle, who attended Rockland/Oceanside schools when he was younger before enrolling in private school in New Hampshire, said, “It felt good to get some recognition for doing some hard work.”

“It was pretty sweet,” said McGonagle, who also won the freshman nationals two years ago and was national runner-up as a sophomore. "It was definitely a tougher [road] than my freshman year. As you go, freshman, sophomore [and] junior nationals, junior is usually the toughest one because most kids go when they’re juniors because colleges are trying to recruit you.”

McGonagle won the freshman nationals at 126 pounds before he jumped to 132 as a sophomore and now as a junior.

McGonagle said, while he has never had trouble motivating himself, his loss in the national sophomore finals — to Gabe Miller of Pennsylvania, who he defeated in the freshman final two years prior — that it was “always in the back of my mind what had happened.”

“It wasn’t necessarily a loss I should have taken,” McGonagle said. “I mean I lost, it is what it is, but I think it was an upset on his part, so I was hungrier this year.”

It showed. McGonagle’s win over Nickel was the only junior championship match to end via pin.

But it was a journey to the championship match for McGonagle that was nearly derailed in the semifinals against Wilkie, who McGonagle called “a big, tough kid” who had trimmed down to 132 after previously wrestling at 145.

“I try not to judge people too much when I wrestle them,” McGonagle said. “You’ve got to take everyone the same, but he did not strike me as someone who was going to come out and perform like that. I definitely was caught off-guard.”

It went down to the wire, and an eventful one at that as McGonagle’s coach won a challenge that certainly could have changed the outcome of the match.

“It was 1-0 in the third period and I was winning and I’m on top, if he escapes out, he gets one and ties it up,” McGonagle said. “So he escaped, took me down and then I reversed him.”

Thus, that would have made the score 3-3, until McGonagle’s coach, in this most literal sense, put his money where his mouth is.

“You can challenge the match,” McGonagle said. “So my coach threw down $100 to challenge it. If you win the challenge, you get $100 back. If you lose the challenge, you don’t get your $100 back. So he put some money on the line, and we won the challenge. They didn’t count it as an escape, they only counted it as a reversal, so I was winning 1-0 and I had to ride him out for 35-40 seconds, and I rode him out. It was pretty wild.”

McGonagle said the $100 rule is only at the national level and is in place because “people were challenging everything.”

So money is involved to discourage frivolous challenges.

That set the stage for the championship match between McGonagle and Nickel, where McGonagle emerged victorious via pin at 2:26 to claim the national championship.

“I obviously didn’t go into the match thinking I was going to pin him,” McGonagle said. “I mean he made it to the national finals, clearly he’s pretty good. And he was, after the first period it was still 0-0. I locked up a quarter-nelson and he just got pinned. And it was crazy. It was nuts. It didn’t even set in with me for at least 20 minutes because I had so much adrenaline pumping.”

McGonagle’s efforts on the mats have garnered him a fair amount of attention as he is being recruited by several top-tier college wrestling schools in the country.

In the end, he committed to Division I Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., which boasts one of the country’s top wrestling programs.

“Overall, I had probably a full scholarship to Maryland, a pretty decent one to [North Carolina] State, I was talking to Ohio State, but in the end Lehigh made sense to me,” McGonagle said. “Because educationally, I wouldn’t be able to make it to that school without wrestling. So furthering myself as a student is probably a smart idea.”

After winning a national title and committing to a Division I school, some might take their foot off the accelerator and take much-deserved time off.

Not McGonagle, who is preparing for the United States Marine Corps Junior and Cadet National championships July 15-22 in Fargo, N.D.

“It’s one of the biggest tournaments in the nation,” he said.

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