FREDONIA - No stranger to high-level wrestling - the man was a coach for the United States women's freestyle team at last summer's London Olympic games - Fredonia coach Alex Conti doesn't mince words when talking about his young freshman, Dakota Gardner.
"I believe that he is capable of winning three state championships," he said. "I believe he's capable of being an Olympic athlete."
High praise, to be sure, but in this case the youngster backs up those lofty accolades by his deeds - deeds that this season included a second-place finish at the New York State Public High School Athletic Association state tournament (the best finish amongst area wrestlers); deeds that have now made him the Post-Journal's first-ever freshman Wrestler of the Year.
Fredonia’s Dakota Gardner, right, takes on Jordan Kayes of Allegany-Limestone in the 126-pound match at the Maple Grove Kick-Off Classic.
P-J photo by Rob Tucker
"That's pretty impressive and quite an accomplishment," Conti said with a laugh after being asked to examine that achievement in the context of Western New York's solid wrestling history.
Already at 87 victories by the close of his eighth-grade season, Gardner had another outstanding showing this time around, going 46-2 (with 22 pins) to improve his total career win tally to a whopping 131 - the most ever by a Western New York wrestler (he broke former Fredonia wrestler Kenny Betts' previous mark) by the end of one's freshman season.
Along the way to achieving that impressive standard, Gardner, a 126-pounder who went undefeated in Dual meets, just about dominated whomever he stepped into the circle with.
He opened the year with a championship at the Maple Grove Kickoff Classic, flattening Allegany-Limestone foe Jordan Kayes in 1:50. Next was a title at the Matthew Marino Invitational at Webster-Schroeder High School, a title at the Niagara County Community College round robin tournament, a title at the Pine Valley Invitational, a title at the Lockport and a title at the Cattaraugus-Little Valley Invitational (in that one Gardner topped his opponent from Attica, who was at the time ranked second in the state for that weight class, by major decision, 14-1).
Building upon that success, he went out and took care of business at the Class C Championship, winning his first two matches in a combined 48 seconds before recording a pin in the semifinal round and a 2-1 decision in the finals for a second straight class crown.
He then followed with a second-place finish at the Section 6 Division 2 state qualifier - his first loss of the season - before bouncing right back at the most important tournament of all: the NYSPHSAA state tournament in Albany.
There he went 3-1, losing only in the championship to William Koll, who is the son of Cornell wrestling coach Rob Koll.
It was the best season of any wrestler in the area, to be sure. And all that success, according to Conti, was borne from three of Gardner's most important characteristics.
First, there's his offseason work ethic.
"I've never had a wrestler put in the time and effort during the offseason that Dakota's put in," Conti marvelled. "That's the most impressive piece of his wrestling. He works at it all the time. He goes up to Buffalo (to the Cobra Wrestling
Academy), wrestles in the spring and summer at different tournaments, his mom and dad have taken him to tournaments since he was very young and he's really put in more time than any other wrestler - only his (older) brother, Jude comes close. So what he's accomplished (so far) isn't a surprise to me, it's just a by-product of how much effort he's put in."
Second, there's his pure grit and determination on the mat.
The best example of that was undoubtedly Gardner's battle in the state semifinals with Jake Nicholson of Section 5.
"What impressed me the most about Dakota was his determination, especially in the semifinals (of states)," Conti said. "He was down two (with just a minute left) in the third, and had to find a way to ride out and get back points. The shear determination on his face was incredible. You could see that he was not going to lose.
"And he didn't."
Finally, there's his ever-growing leadership qualities.
"He was one of the guys I could have given our most improved wrestler award to," Conti said. "That may sound funny for a guy who's already placed sixth and second at states and won every tournament, but the improvement he made as a person and a workout partner was fantastic. The better the workout partner, the better the wrestler, people don't understand that, and Dakota made huge strides in that area. That really stood out to me."
All this taken together, and it should come as no surprise that Gardner is this year's Wrestler of the Year - the real surprise would be if he doesn't earn the award again.