Three Out of Three Ain't Bad

Maine Central Institute wrestlers overcame COVID restrictions and low participation numbers this season to become Coach Mike Libby’s first team in 22 years to win three individual regional championships

You could forgive MCI Wrestling coach Mike Libby for tempering his expectations going into the 2021-22 season. After all, his team lost the entire 2020-21 season to COVID-19 and had to contend with tight safety restrictions to compete this winter. Several weeks into the season, his roster was whittled down to two sophomore athletes—effectively freshmen because of the lost season—and a lone senior who came in with a losing record for his career.

Instead of dwelling on the adversity they faced, Bryce Bussell (220 lb weight class), Isaac Keresey (138), and Keith Cook (126) set their sights on championship hardware. Each of them grappled their way to 1st place finishes at the Class B North Regional Championship tournament, a feat that Libby hadn’t seen in his 22 years in the program. They followed it up with more hardware the following weekend at the state tournament. Bussell and Cook each finished as runners up in their weight classes and Keresey took third, good for three more podiums and three more medals to finish the season. Rarely in Libby’s tenure have two of his wrestlers competed in state finals matches.

“If I had known in the beginning of the year that we would have two kids in the state finals and another kid in the consolation finals, I would have been ecstatic,” said Libby. To underscore the feat, Libby pointed to a list of MCI state champions he’s coached who didn’t even qualify for the state tournament as sophomores. Keresey and Cook are conceivably freshmen in wrestling years considering their lost 9th grade season.

Bussell entered his senior season with a 35-45 record. The Harmony native had never wrestled before his freshman year, unlike his teammates who came up through Pittsfield wrestling programs. He battled nagging illness as a sophomore before losing his entire junior season—a year when wrestlers often come into their own. His 35-8 record as a senior might’ve surprised outsiders, but for Bussell it was all part of the plan. “My expectation was to win states no matter what my record was,” he said. While he fell just short of perfection at the state meet, Bussell’s unwavering commitment to defying the odds would define the attitude of his whole team.

Bryce Bussell Wrestles an opponent during the 2021-2022 season. Bussell would go on to finish first in the Class B North Regional and second in the Class B State final.

The Maine Principals Association mandated that athletes participating in wrestling must be vaccinated against COVID-19 and that they must wear masks at all times while practicing and competing. For those who have never wrestled, the sport is absolutely grueling. The physical exertion required to compete in a six minute match is nearly incomprehensible for those who haven’t experienced it, but you can imagine how wearing a mask might provide an added discomfort.

When the vaccine mandate combined with mask-related attrition to reduce the MCI squad to three, Libby was left with the challenge of structuring productive small-group practices. Keresey and Cook were natural wrestling partners because of their close weights (not to mention they’d been practicing against each other since seventh grade, said Cook), but getting Bussell his work was more of a challenge. Ironically, said Libby, there were often more coaches than athletes at practice, and a patchwork cast of former MCI wrestlers filled in to give Bussell plenty of competition. His partners included MCI Athletic Trainer and assistant coach Patrick Hapworth ’10 (a former state champion), Cole Steeves ’21, Kahlden Briggs ’21, Malik Keresey ’21 (Isaac’s older brother), and Briar Bussell ’14 (Bryce’s older brother).

Traditionally, everybody wrestles everybody in practice, a method that exposes each athlete to various opponents’ strengths and techniques. It also helps to prevent drillwork from getting stale, a challenge Libby says his wrestlers overcame with focus and internal motivation. “These were the kids that have been wrestling for a while, have gone to camps, have done the summer stuff. I think they had tunnel vision. They knew what was coming and what they had to do,” he said.

Cook echoed that mindset, saying practice is about “just trying to be as positive as you can be. Being about it. Knowing that any meet could be your last, so you have to bring it as much as you can.” His and Keresey’s 8th grade season was cut short because of COVID, so they weren’t about to take time on the mat for granted.

Keith Cook works to pin an opponent during the 2021-2022 wrestling season. Cook went on to win a regional title and finish second at the Class B State tournament.

Late in the season, Libby’s largely college-aged staff was thinned when the spring semester began on university campuses. The team began traveling to Skowhegan High School to work out with the Riverhawks wrestling team, whose coaches Libby knows well.

“I actually got to work with two different bigger guys. We would wrestle live, and one of the guys was actually my competition during the season. It helped a lot working with him,” said Bussell. Traditionally a Class A wrestling powerhouse, the Skowhegan team only had five wrestlers of their own this year, an indicator of the challenge teams across the state had in filling weight classes. The joint practices were mutually beneficial, and MCI traveled to Skowhegan multiple days a week over the final weeks of the season.

A healthy sense of internal competition also fueled the trio of wrestlers. With little-to-no shot at winning team matches because of forfeited weight classes, Bussell, Keresey, and Cook challenged each other to compete against the maximum team points earnable by three individuals. Pinning an opponent (as opposed to winning via points) earns an individual the maximum amount of team points, so it takes each wrestler pinning his opponent to earn the full amount of potential points. “Most of the time we’d go to a meet and win every match, but we'd only have three kids, so we'd lose every match. If somebody didn't pin someone to score the maximum points, we would always (jokingly) give them a hard time,” said Libby. Bussell said he checked the stat sheet mid-year to see who had scored more team points and found Cook ahead of him. “I was like, I have to beat him! I have to pin more guys,” he said. Keresey, who took most of his losses in the early weeks of the season, said that catching up to his team was a motivating factor for getting his season on track.

Libby’s wrestlers were also committed to supporting each other’s success despite the fact that, in reality, they only had a shot at individual success with such a small team. They sat at the edge of the mat for all of each other’s matches and took turns filming for one another. It’s a testament to the camaraderie that small, dedicated groups can build that three individuals who didn’t spend much time together off the mat would grow into such a tight unit, said Libby. There’s also plenty of time to get to know one another when the team is small enough to travel to meets in a minivan. “Whenever we went somewhere, we were all together. Every tournament, we're all together. We're almost like a family,” said Cook. Keresey added, “I feel like the three of us grew closer, personally, than if there were more people. There was definitely a strong bond.”

Isaac Keresey escapes from his opponent. Keresey would go on to finish first at the Class B North Regional tournament and third at the state tournament.

The group also went through the growing pains that all families do, especially families who spend afternoons throwing each other around on a mat day after day. But there were several moments through the course of the season that led the wrestlers to believe in one another and in turn, themselves. Bussell said his early season victory at the annual Westlake Tournament helped to ease the nerves he had going into the season, and a victory at the Nokomis tournament in which he pinned all of his opponents and was named the tournament’s Outstanding Wrestler cemented him as a force to be reckoned with.

As the three continued to wrack up individual wins, a quiet confidence developed that would set the tone for postseason tournament season. At the Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference Tournament (the week before regionals), Bussell and Keresey both took second. Keresey lost an excruciatingly close finals match in triple overtime against the eventual state champion in his weight class who had pinned him earlier in the year, a moment Libby said opened Keresey’s eyes to what he could really do. A fourth place finish at KVAC’s for Cook, who had been beating opponents left and right coming in, lit a fire that he would ride through the remaining postseason.

Then Bussell and Keresey beat out undefeated number one-seeded opponents in the regional tournament to join Cook as champions in an unprecedented day in program history. Bussell probably tells the story of the day best. “Keith and Isaac were in front of me in the championship matches. Isaac was wrestling an undefeated kid, and he beat him. Keith beat his kid, so I was like, ‘I gotta get first now.’ I was nervous at the same time. Excited. And then as soon as the match started, I wasn't nervous anymore. Once I got the first takedown it was like the best feeling in the world. I was like ‘alright I'm gonna win this.’ When you watch the clock run out and you're on top on the scoreboard, it’s one of the best feelings, especially as a lower seed when you can knock off the number one seed. Especially in a big tournament like that, it's probably one of the best feelings you can have.”

It would’ve been easy to write off the MCI Wrestling season as a rebuilding year. It’s a credit to the tenacious individuals involved in the program that they took (yet another) situation soured by COVID and turned it into a year to remember for its numerous victories. One theme is apparent when talking with these individuals though, and that’s the utter lack of novelty or a proverbial secret sauce in their preparation. To them, there’s nothing remarkable about success. It was all part of the plan. Their story is light on gimmicky “bulletin board material” and heavy on internal motivation. So what did this season reveal about the three wrestlers who stuck with it to the end? “I think it says that we would do whatever it takes to wrestle,” said Bussell. “We don't really care what we have to do, as long as we get to wrestle.”

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