‘They’re both tough kids’: Despite minimal wrestling experience, Griffin Norwalt and Noah Blake shine for Concord when it matters most

By ERIC RYNSTON-LOBEL

Monitor staff

Published: 02-28-2023 9:09 AM

Inside the gym at Londonderry High School on Feb. 18, Concord wrestling experienced both expected and unexpected success at the Division I wrestling championships.

Junior Griffin Norwalt, the top seed in the 120-pound weight class, and senior Noah Blake, the No. 4 seed in the 195-pound weight class, both took home first-place medals.

From the top seed, such a result was the expectation for Norwalt. For Blake? Not so much. 

But for both of them, their triumphs grew even more notable because neither have a ton of wrestling experience. Norwalt wrestled a little in middle school before playing hockey his freshman year at Concord High; Blake’s wrestled since his freshman year, but this is only his second year on the varsity team. Neither placed in last year’s D-I championship.

Norwalt followed up his D-I performance with a third-place finish in the State Meet of Champions held at Bedford High School on Saturday; Blake suffered a setback in his opening bout but ultimately finished fourth in his weight class.

“They’re both tough kids,” Concord wrestling coach Ham Munnell said. “Grif’s kind of a natural athlete; he can do a lot of different things. … (Noah) last year didn’t place in D-I’s, but he was a starter. He had an OK year, but he put in a lot of time in the weight room. A lot of it is his determination to be as good as he can be.”

They don’t know what they don’t know

2022-23 was Munnell’s 27th year as Concord’s wrestling coach. But the level of experience on his rosters the last couple of years has contrasted a bit with previous teams.

Largely because of the pandemic, offseason wrestling programs and other opportunities for kids to improve were on hold. As such, Munnell’s throwing more of his wrestlers into the fire with way less experience than he’s used to.

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“We’re a different kind of team than we’ve been,” he said. “There’s a point where a kid gets so good that you’re just fixing a few things. That’s how we were most of my career. Since we’ve been less experienced because of the pandemic, kids have popped into the lineup that are inexperienced.”

Coaching these newer wrestlers requires patience on Munnell’s end. 

“They don’t know what they don’t know,” he said. “You can tell them, but until they experience it, they won’t believe you.”

Munnell estimates that until a wrestler has competed in at least 20 matches, they don’t have a strong understanding of what their strengths and weaknesses are. 

Pre-pandemic, Munnell often had wrestlers who wrestled in at least 100 matches before they even reached high school.

“Neither Grif nor Noah, I don’t think either one of them has 100 matches period,” he said. “I know they don’t. So that’s where we’re at. It’s a good team, good bunch of guys. I tip my hat to Grif and Noah for sure, doing it the hard way, doing it just on determination. And they’re getting better.”

They both believe in themselves

Contrary to a sport like basketball, wrestling more accessibly lends itself to athletes with little or no experience, even entering high school. If you’ve never picked up a basketball before, it’s hard to show up for ninth grade tryouts and make the team. But if you’ve never stood on a wrestling mat, that’s OK. 

Norwalt and Blake are prime examples.

“It just shows that you can be super successful in wrestling in a short time if you want to be,” Munnell said.

Blake hadn’t even won a tournament entering the D-I championship, a rarity for an eventual state champion. But leaning on his limited experience and mental preparation served him well.

“They were gritty, tough performances,” Munnell said. “They’re good kids. They work hard. They’re what you tell kids to be. You want kids to be tough; you want kids to never say they can’t do it. They both believe in themselves, and they were tough.” 

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