Note: This is the first story in an ongoing, season-long series about the Mount Anthony Union High School wrestling team as it seeks its 25th straight state championship.

AUSTIN DANFORTH

Assistant Sports Editor

The spectacle begins when the lights go dark.

One bank, then another, and the crowd howls as darkness consumes Kates Gym. AC/DC's "Hells Bells" begin to chime from the speakers. Single-file, the Patriots enter the room, passing in front of the main stand of bleachers. Strobe lights cast their hooded silhouettes as lengthy shadows. When the tune changes and the pace quickens, the 15 shadows create a flashing cyclone as they race in a circle around the mat.

By now, in its 28th year, the attention-grabbing warm-up tradition is as familiar to Mount Anthony Union High School wrestling fans as the program's current run of 24 consecutive state championships.

Yet, for MAU senior Miguel Calixto -- he of 176 career wins before Friday night's match with Queensbury (N.Y.) -- it was a memorable first. Already a three-time state-champion for Windham, Conn., it was the home debut for the 132-pounder who transferred to Mount Anthony over the summer.

And, to avoid a total culture shock Friday, teammates prepped Calixto for the unique atmosphere when the room went black.

They tried to explain the scene, anyway. The crowd conveyed what they could not.


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"They told me to expect a lot of cheering, a lot of fans, and there was going to be a lot of ruckus," Calixto said. "They told me to be prepared, give it all I've got, and let the fans do the rest.

"I wasn't expecting that much -- that was a lot. I'm not used to all those fans and everything. I'm not used to the lights off. But I like the pressure."

After watching 13 teammates go before him, Calixto responded with a pressurized performance of his own, pinning his opponent in 2 minutes, 48 seconds -- his ninth pin in a dominant 9-0 start to the season. He finished the weekend with three more victories and the 132-pound title at the Pin Down MDS tournament in Berlin, Conn., -- less than an hour from his old school.

"He kind of knew what to expect but he was definitely blown away by our warm-up, how intense the crowd is for us," senior Kyle Fletcher said. "There's nothing like a home match."

Calixto said his first introduction to coach Scott Legacy's MAU program was at a camp in seventh grade. Most recently, he was knocked out of the third-place match at the New England championships by Patriots' 132-pounder Zak Hale.

Other high-profile wrestlers have transferred into the Patriots' program in recent years, including Matt Parisi from Mount Mansfield and Jake Shortt from Cambridge (N.Y.).

All had to adjust to the new environment -- home of 143 individual state champions since Legacy took over in 1985 -- before thriving in the MAU singlet.

"We've had a few kids that families have moved here over the years to be part of the program that have been pretty good. It's always a little bit of a transition at first for the kid, a feeling-out process for everybody," Legacy said.

"My old coach was a good coach, I knew him since I was very young, but I like the way Coach Legacy does things," Calixto said. "He's very hard on you but he just wants the best for everyone and no matter how hard he dogs you, it's always for the best."

For Calixto, fifth at New Englands last season, the move to Mount Anthony offered an improved classroom setting for his senior year.

"My academics weren't as great at Windham, in Connecticut, the school that I went to, so I decided to make a change and came down here," Calixto said. "It seemed like the best fit for me."

Barely a month into the season, his energetic style has started to rub off on the squad.

"He provides a constant presence in the [wrestling] room for our better kids, especially -- he's been helping them out with speed, quickness," Legacy said. "But on the other end, he's learning a lot from our kids, technically the pace of the practice, the technique -- we pay attention to detail."

Eager to extend their state title run another year and, potentially snap an 8-year New England championship drought, the Patriots are happy to have him on board.

"I don't think it matters where you grow up. We're a family, we accept everybody," Fletcher said. "We embraced him right from the start."