Published January 10. 2013 4:00AM
Ledyard - Wrestlers wore neon T-shirts promoting Ledyard High School's crew team, a white one sporting a lacrosse logo and a navy blue one with the number "18" in huge, white block print.
That T-shirt is a not-so-subtle reminder of the number of state titles won by the Colonels, a state record.
Then there was the athletic gray T-shirt worn by senior Matt Jones as he warmed up for his 132-pound match. His approach was more subtle, but the phrase on his back - in small, navy blue letters - perfectly explains why Ledyard remains one of Connecticut's elite wrestling programs: HARD WORK BEATS TALENT WHEN TALENT DOESN'T WORK HARD.
Ledyard continues to succeed on both counts, which was evident Wednesday night when the Colonels made quick work of Norwich Free Academy, 54-15, in a midseason matchup of unbeatens in the Eastern Connecticut Conference Large Division.
"It's kind of funny," Ledyard coach Steve Bilheimer said. "All the time down in the office we've got a lot of the guys that come back from college or whatever, and they always want to talk about which team is better.
"This is definitely a solid lineup. Is it the most solid? I guess it depends on who you're talking to. But right now it's a pretty solid lineup and we want to keep it that way."
The 2012-13 Ledyard edition is currently ranked No. 2 in the state behind Danbury. The two state powers won't meet during the regular season, but the Colonels (5-0, 3-0) will see every other school currently ranked in the Top 10 this winter.
They have already beaten No. 3 Farmington, No. 6 Windham, No. 8 New Milford and No. 10 Bristol Eastern. They wrestle No. 5 Simsbury on Saturday in their annual dual tournament and have No. 6 Fairfield Warde, No. 7 Xavier and No. 9 Southington on their late-season schedule.
And the Colonels are loving this competition, which will prepare them well for their Class M title defense next month.
"We've got a tough schedule ... the kids know it," Bilheimer said. "We know at least once a week we have a big match or a big tournament, so we're just working to improve."
Against NFA, Ledyard displayed a combination of finesse, power and technical excellence to beat a very respectable Wildcats team. The Colonels had seven pins - Devon MarcAurele (120), Justin Timberlake (138), Brandon Finney (152), Ryan Wade (170), Colin Grim (182), Ben Morales (220) and Alec Gabriel (285) - a technical fall (Jones, 132), a major decision (Mike Graff, 126) and a decision (Josh Rahal, 113).
John Crooke (195) had the lone pin for NFA (8-7, 2-1) while Jacob Martin (106), Tyler Courter (145) and Edgar Charles (160) earned decisions.
Grim trailed NFA's Khaleed Exum-Strong 4-1 early, battled his way back and executed a perfect throw in the third period to earn a pin in 4 minutes, 23 seconds.
"The hardest thing in wrestling is staying in good position, especially against a team like (NFA)," Bilheimer said. "They're scrappy. They really try to get you out of position, so overall I thought we did a good job."
Morales, one of eight seniors in the starting lineup against NFA, has been impressed with the team since the very first practice.
"I like where we're headed," he said. "Anyone can jump in at any time and do what they have to do to help us as a team. ... When we go to a tournament we don't look for individual awards, we look for the team award.
"It's been on our mind since day one to get that 19th championship."