The lights drop, except for one, shining straight down on the bold “CMW” in the middle of the all-black wrestling mat. C. Milton Wright coach John Thornton strolls beside the mat ahead of this season opening dual meet, his eighth since returning to lead his alma mater.
Thornton interrupts this short walk. He peers down toward the center of the mat at his right. His index finger pulls on the collar keeping his tie tucked in beneath his black team pullover. The coach surveys the light-blue encrusted gym which he once competed in as a student. He’s calm. But it’s evident, if only internally, there’s more to the moment he’s clutching.
That’s because this wasn’t the same as the last seven season openers.
A 42-34 win over visiting Harford Tech gave Thornton his 100th as a coach. It is believed he became the first person to eclipse the century win mark as both a Harford County coach and wrestler. He won 114 matches in three years (1997-99) competing for the Mustangs.
“Coming out of the gate, having a competitive team like Harford Tech, I was focused on winning the match regardless of what number it is,” Thornton said. “I didn’t want the distraction of everything else. But I appreciate it and maybe it’s necessary.”
The win didn’t come easy by any stretch.
An early lead crumbled when the Cobras ran off four straight wins, tilting the points total. Jaxon Simms (165) emphatically halted Harford Tech’s run. His energy snowballed C. Milton Wright to topple four of the last five matches that determined the final score.
“I’ve done it before, I’ve done it in other duals, I knew I could do it here for him,” Simms said. “[Thornton] is a great guy. I love him. Always motivating, pushing you hard and making you the best you can be.”
Thornton said his team may have put more pressure on the match than he did because of the number hovering over their coach. One wrestler tweaked his ankle in practice on Tuesday and “probably shouldn’t have wrestled” but he refused to sit out given the circumstances.
Collectively, they got the job done regardless.
Blue and white streamers shot out from the stands onto the gym floor. A poster was made to commemorate the milestone with a glittered “Coach John 100 wins” and a collage of team pictures from throughout his tenure.
Thornton took a moment to soak in those old photos. He posed for pictures with his family. C. Milton Athletic Director Kaitlyn Larrimore presented a trophy for the unique achievement.
C. Milton Wright wrestling coach John Thornton poses with his custom trophy after securing 100 wins for his alma mater where he once earned 100-plus wins as a wrestler. (Sam Cohn/Staff)
When the dust settled on the post-match celebration, one of his players requested to take down his coach. Thornton let it happen. Then he got back up and swept the players’ leg, taking him right back down to the mat. He had a 100-plus wins (and only 23 losses) a wrestler himself, remember? That includes two state championships, wins in 61 of his 62 final matches and an undefeated 36-0 senior campaign.
He even won the 1996 Virginia Independent State Championship as a freshman while wrestling for Woodberry Forest School in the 130-pound division. He’d put on some weight closer to 160 and 170 once moving to Harford County.
“In high school, I was a pretty technical wrestler,” Thornton said. “More of a control type wrestler. I didn’t run up a lot of points. I wasn’t a ‘let him up, take him down’ kinda guy. Fairly basic technique. Honestly I learned early on in coaching, you can’t teach the kids to be you. I tried. But I scrapped that early on.”
Thornton was formerly an assistant at John Carroll for five years before taking his head coaching job at C. Milton Wright. Back then, he admitted he was a bit less in control of his emotions.
Now, when Thornton coaches, there are traces of stoicism. He’s locked in.
For much of the hour-plus dual meet, he’s leaning over, legs spread wide, hands cupping knees and back almost parallel to the ground. The emotion, not unlike in the moments leading up to Wednesday’s season opener, is something he’s been intentional to keep internal.
“When I took this job, I was probably a little less in control of my emotions in those days,” Thornton said, interjecting a rare laugh. “Every year, I’m thinking I got to rein it in a little. The kids feed off it. Good and bad. I try to keep it even keeled. I’ve been working on it.”
It has made him a far better coach. One that hasn’t seen his program’s record dip below .500. And now, the season that opened with his hundredth win, the spotlight light shines the brightest. Thornton dubbed it their best chance for a run at a state title.
“I could have five wins and win a state championship and still be happy,” Thornton said. “If I never won again after that I’d still be happy. That’s what I’ve been focused on.”