Assistant Sports Editor
Two times -- once on the mat and once atop the podium -- Jesse Webb cracks a smile, the first much more sly than the next. While the second was expected, the obvious reaction to winning his third consecutive state championship last month, the initial grin was subtle.
It was for himself.
His face, down and slightly blue, reflecting the mat, filled with delight. Satisfaction, really. Officially, the match was not over at Vergennes Union High School. But, with the soon-to-be-runner-up Essex heavyweight just rolled onto his back, it might as well have been.
"My favorite part is when you start gaining on them and they start to break. It's like the best feeling," says Webb, a Mount Anthony Union High School junior. "You know you beat them before it even ended."
Rare though it is, the change in Webb's usual gaze, strikingly intense yet thoughtful, is a hint that he is having fun out there. When asked about his last defeat of any kind, which came nearly a year ago in a off-season dual tournament, his face sours, but only for a moment.
Another knowing grin surfaces as he remembers:
"Coach told me that was the last time I was going to lose in high school. And I haven't lost since."
* * *
Webb's deep, focused bearing assumes a cutting edge when he steps onto the mat. Or, at least, it looks that way when he tightens the muscles around his eyes as he bounds toward the center circle and his next foe.
Moments before, he completed his carefully choreographed pre-match routine. There were stretches and a series of short sprints to expand his lungs. He's inserted the earbuds connected to his iPod, which is likely playing something by Jay-Z or another rap artist that will psych him up -- "For some reason the beats in the songs just get me excited," Webb says.
He has paced up and down the edge of the mat, like a bull staring down a matador, bouncing on his feet to stay warm while he visualizes his upcoming match.
And then, just before it is his turn to step into the spotlight, he removes his wire-rimmed glasses, exposing the astigmatism that he squints to correct. But honestly, he says, it's no big deal. And it certainly did not slow him down during a 53-0 junior season in which he won his first New England championship, the latest in a growing list of accolades.
"I'm pretty blind but it doesn't make that much of a difference," Webb says with a friendly smile. "I don't need to see too much."
If only his opponents were so lucky.
At 16, Webb has already accomplished more than any Mount Anthony heavyweight before him, which, almost by default, places him among Vermont's all-time greats. In addition to his three state crowns and the recent New England romp, a pillar for the Patriots as they won their first team title in nine years, Webb claimed national championships in his age group as a freshman and sophomore. He has his sights set on another early next month.
With a career record of 165-9 for the Patriots, he is poised to make an assault on former MAU wrestler and current assistant coach Rob LaBrake's state record of 219 victories next year.
"It would be hard to put a period or an exclamation on [his success] at this point in time because he's still got some time to go," says veteran coach Scott Legacy, who has led the Patriots for the entirety of their current, record run of 25 straight Vermont state championships.
Last fall, the 6-foot-1, 278-pound Webb scored perhaps his biggest victory yet, winning the Super 32 championship in Greensboro, N.C. He is the first Vermonter and only the second New Englander to win the prestigious event, a proving ground for NCAA Division I wrestling talent.
"The competition's never too big for him. The higher the level, the better he wrestles," Legacy says.
As a junior this past season, Webb took his wrestling to a nearly untouchable level while dueling with teammate Miguel Calixto, the New England champion at 132 pounds, to see who could finish the year unbeaten.
In 44 contested matches -- he had nine forfeits in the sometimes hard-to-fill heavyweight division -- Webb scored 35 pins. Twenty-eight of those contests didn't even reach the second period.
But the most remarkable part?
No one scored an offensive takedown against Webb.
In any match.
"I didn't really think about it until the next morning [after New Englands] when coach had us over for breakfast," Webb says. "Coach [Dan] Pierce said, 'You didn't get scored on all year.'"
Fair Haven's Scott Shaddock has seen the Mount Anthony wrestling team as much as any coach in Vermont over the past 22 years he's coached there.
For him, it's Webb's aggressive pace on the mat, one usually reserved for the lighter weights, that makes him "one of my favorite wrestlers." Too often it is a mentality that goes under-appreciated among the biggest wrestlers.
"He doesn't look that menacing with that low center of gravity," Shaddock says. "But he can hit better moves than most heavyweights.
"He's like a big boulder. But then you get trying to move this big boulder and find out the boulder can move better than you."
* * *
On Feb. 25, two days after his third state championship put him in position to become just the sixth Vermonter to collect four crowns, Webb is back training. The team session is over, but he is logging overtime in the narrow, red-white-and-blue padded Mount Anthony practice room. At the time, the regional tournament is the next target, but the wrestling never really stops.
Head bowed slightly, Webb traces tight ovals across the floor at a light sprint. The intensity in his expression is more distant than usual. His gray T-shirt, long since soaked through, clings to his body. Most days, he enters the room at about 280 pounds but leaves it at a little less than 270.
"I doubt you'll see too many 285-pounders doing sprints for 20 minutes after practice," Legacy says with the patter of Webb's footfalls echoing through the room. "I'm sure he's focusing on his goals and thinking about them."
That type of dedication and focus had molded Webb into the nation's fourth-ranked heavyweight in his class at the start of the season, according to Wrestling USA magazine, and a top college prospect.
It's an "uncommon" trait that's been with Webb since he began wrestling in middle school, says Legacy. The coach recalls turning out of the Mount Anthony campus onto Park Street one hot day three summers ago to see Webb jogging by himself.
"There was Jesse, running down the road, 3:30 in the afternoon on a non-training day," Legacy says. "He was an eighth-grader going into ninth grade then, and I'm like, 'I can't believe that this kid, at that age, was doing the extra training.'"
Mary Webb was surprised how quickly her son took to wrestling after starting at age 13. She was unfamiliar with the trappings of the sport then but figured it would be a good way for him to exercise.
"I didn't know if he'd stick with it," she says.
Soon, she noticed Jesse, whose twin brother Perle is the school's No. 2 heavyweight, was more energetic, "walking straighter, more confident."
"[Now] he feels the need to work out. It's a Jesse thing," Mary Webb says. "If he doesn't, I think he gets a little cranky."
And so conditioning is at the core of Webb's wrestling style. During matches, he sprints back to the middle of the mat after action drifts outside the boundary line - his opponents walk back, wearily. After wins, he hustles to the center circle where he bounces in place, off of one foot, then the other, waiting for the official to raise his hand. In the YouTube video of his Super 32 championship bout, you can hear an announcer praise his fitness as he strings together takedowns: "This guy has a gas tank for a heavy. He keeps on going."
After feeling out-muscled at times as a sophomore, Webb said he committed himself to more weight lifting in the off-season. He still might not be the strongest heavyweight but has figured out how to take advantage of his improved power.
"It's the physics part," Legacy explains. "He knows how to use his strength, his leverage. He has trunks for legs - that's where the power comes from."
As a result, Webb has developed into one of the most explosive members of a team loaded with individual state champions, 100-match winners and top-end wrestlers like Calixto, a senior who finished the scholastic season 60-0, and sophomore Troy Gassaway, a New England runner-up. He's made a generally tedious weight class anything but.
"Normally heavyweights are very boring, but with him it's not," Legacy says. "We kind of like it when he's last [at home], because people don't leave. If we're beating somebody by 60-something-to-whatever, they'll stay to watch him wrestle."
Unfazed by the success, though, he relishes the post-practice sprints.
"Ultimately it makes me in better shape. But when I'm doing it, I usually just think that no other heavyweight is doing those five sprints or those 10 sprints," Webb says. "Even if it's a small amount, when I go into that match with them, that's my edge.
"Even that little edge helps. Over time, that builds up, this many sprints this day, this many sprints that day."
* * *
In all likelihood, life should begin to move pretty fast for Webb around July 1. That is when college coaches can begin to contact him directly, sending the recruiting process into hyperdrive.
Until now, there has been a steady stream of letters - "He gets a lot of stuff in the mail," says Mary Webb - and Legacy has received many inquiries. Webb's driven demeanor and relentless approach in competition have left an impression.
"The sky is the limit for him right now, there's so much upside," Legacy says. "What I hear from college coaches is, 'I like watching that kid wrestle,' or, 'I love watching him wrestle.'"
Since Webb's victory at the Super 32 Challenge in October, Legacy says he's heard from "all the major schools," including the likes of Penn State, Iowa State, North Carolina State and Virginia. It makes sense, too: Last spring, four of the 10 NCAA Division I national champions had wrestled in the Super 32 during their high school careers. More than a quarter of the 80 NCAA All-Americans were also former competitors, according to the tournament's website.
"But the biggest asset is right here," Legacy says, pointing to his temple. "It's his mind. He believes in his tools, he believes in himself. He does not doubt himself at all. It doesn't matter what the other individual looks like or anything like that.
"We can tell that he just believes in his training ability and who he is. He doesn't wrestle outside of things that he can't do."
During the recent seven-match run that brought the state and regional crowns, Webb recorded six pins. His New England tournament-opener took all of 14 seconds -- plenty of time to make a statement.
"I grabbed his leg and just crotch-lifted him, put him right on his back," Webb says.
As his future starts to weigh on the present, Webb, an A- and B-student, according to his mother, finds himself more motivated in school, unwilling to let the opportunity slip away. He says the idea of him as a D-I scholarship athlete was far-fetched until now.
Even when Legacy told him last year that he would be a target for big schools, "the ones you see on TV wrestling," he laughed it off.
"And then I started getting more and more letters ... I never imagined it," Webb says.
Yet these are the days made for what his coach says is one of the things that make the junior such a special talent: His perspective, an ability to keep things in check.
"It's crazy. You see yourself move up and reach that next level. And you see it over and over again and it makes you work even harder to get to that next level," Webb says. "You always want to push to the next level." At his pace, he should be staring at it soon enough.