SANBORN – This wasn’t how it was going to unfold for the McDougald family.
Undefeated cousins Willie McDougald Jr. and Warren McDougald III were about to step on the mat to face each other Jan. 9 at Niagara Wheatfield High School. But when they realized that one would leave the mat with his first loss of the season, it wasn’t worth the hassle.
Or the heartache.
At the last second, Niagara Wheatfield coach Rick Sweney replaced Warren III in the lineup with Austin Lieber.
Wrestling for rival Niagara Falls, Willie Jr. pinned Lieber in 3 minutes, 36 seconds in the 145-pound weight class. Warren III pinned Maurice Seawright in 3:57 at 152 pounds to seal a 49-24 win for Niagara Wheatfield, helping the Falcons capture the Niagara Cup and draw closer to the Niagara Frontier League championship.
Lindsey Lasut, Warren III’s and Justin McDougald's mother, wasn’t going to let another bout between the cousins happen, either. It occurred in 2016 when Willie Jr. beat Warren III in a Section VI championship bout in the 113-pound class.
“Warren let go, and he regretted that,” Lasut said. “We had a family meeting and said, ‘They will never match up again.’
“One broke down, and he couldn’t wrestle him like he would a regular opponent.”
Justin didn’t want it to happen, either. Not when his older brother and his cousin faced the prospect of having an unbeaten season end in a dual meet.
“You don’t want to see that,” Justin said. “You don’t want to see two cousins put a mark on each other’s records. Especially senior year. It’s bad form. You don’t want to see one fall to another.
“If we can all be three kings, why make a prince out of somebody? If we can stay at the top, stay at the top.”
Justin, at 34-0, remains the only undefeated wrestler in the family. He defeated Victor Perlleshi of Pleasantville, 5-2, to win the 132-pound title at the Eastern States Classic on Jan. 11 in Loch Sheldrake, three days after the Niagara Falls/Niagara Wheatfield dual meet.
Warren III (31-3) and Willie Jr. (33-1) suffered their first losses of the season at the same tournament.
The McDougalds are the top-ranked wrestlers in their respective Section VI weight classes, according to ArmDrag.com. They’re also a part of one of the most accomplished wrestling families in Western New York, a passion carved by their late grandfather.
“They were always serious about wrestling, from Day One,” Lasut said. “They were never nonchalant about wrestling. It’s always been go hard or go home.”
The influence of 'Mac'
Warren "Mac" McDougald was an Army veteran and an instrument mechanic with Olin Chemical Company. He coached wrestling and instilled his love for the sport in his sons Warren, the father of Justin and Warren III, and Willie, father of Willie Jr.
“When I was young, my dad told me about wrestling and I started doing it,” said Justin, a junior who is a three-time Section VI champion and a two-time state finalist.
“Then, I found out my grandfather passed, doing what he loved, as a wrestling coach, and now I dedicate everything I do to him. We want to make it to a level where some of my family couldn’t make it to, because of injuries or setbacks or lost family members. We want to punch through and get our name further out there. And we want to keep Mac living on."
Justin, Willie Jr. and Warren III were toddlers when Mac died of a blood clot in his lung in May of 2004. He was 48.
His son, Warren II, wanted to get his children involved in his father’s passion, but Warren’s middle child – Warren III – was reluctant to wrestle.
A trip to his older brother’s youth wrestling practice piqued Warren III’s interest.
“I was watching them and I wanted to be a part of that,” said Warren III, a senior who is a three-time Section VI champion and has placed twice in the state championships. “I was the slowest one to get on the mat, and the next thing you know, you see me on the side of the mat doing bear crawls with them, and I was 6 or 7 years old.”
Justin was 5 when he decided to wrestle, after tagging along to a tournament with Willie Jr. and Warren III.
“He looked up at me and said, ‘I want to wrestle,’ ” Warren II recalled. “He started taking off his clothes, like he wanted to compete, and I was like, ‘Wait, whoa! You have to sign up and once we sign you up, then you can wrestle!’
“But from his very first match, he was in love with the sport. Warren, it took him a couple years, but he fell right into it.”
Sweney coached with Mac, and watched as his sons brought their children to wrestling practices.
“They came out of the Niagara Falls youth program, and they’ve been wrestling since they were 4 or 5 years old,” said Sweney, who has coached wrestling for 41 years. “Their grandfather helped build that program.”
Willie Jr. is very measured, but extremely devoted to his sport. The defending state champion at 132 pounds will reference his grandparents in the same way he references his faith in God, as they nurtured his love both of wrestling and religion.
D.J. Giancola has coached him since the seventh grade and saw what Willie Jr. invested to become Niagara Falls' first state wrestling champion in 51 years.
“He made a lot of sacrifices, and did things that other kids might not do,” said Giancola, Niagara Falls' coach. “He knew that when others were sleeping, he had to work out. And when you win a state title, you’re the only one out on that floor, and that’s mentally challenging. Willie did things that were on top of his work ethic, on top of his workouts. He had to focus his mind to block out that pressure.”
Justin is very straightforward. He calls things as he sees them.
Warren III is always searching for the right words in an attempt to explain things properly, including the significance of wrestling to his family.
“I’m not too sure how to explain what wrestling means to us as a family, to someone who doesn’t know,” Warren III said. “The first thing I’d say to them, though, is you have to feel the atmosphere. All the yelling and the motivation and the adrenaline, they will feel that, they will want to be a part of that, and that’s what we want them to feel. And we tell them, ‘You’ve got to join the family.’ ”
At the 2018 NYSPHSAA Division I state championships, in addition to Willie Jr. winning a state title, Justin was second in the 125-pound weight class and Warren III was third at 145 pounds.
Collectively, there’s more than wrestling to life for the McDougalds. When they are together at family events, they play video games, play football or basketball, or they talk about girls.
But Lasut gives the sport a larger measurement.
“I don’t know if you can just say wrestling is ‘important,’ ” Lasut said. “But it’s a way of our life. If we even try to take a break, the boys will ask us, ‘When are we going wrestling? What’s next?’ We do it all year.”
'A fun little challenge'
The Section VI dual meet tournaments are Saturday at Lancaster High School, and the team winners will represent Section VI in the first state dual meet championships Jan. 26 at SRC Arena at Onondaga Community College in Syracuse. (Editor's Note: The Section VI dual meet tournaments Saturday were canceled due to the forecast winter storm.)
More than 20 family members sat in the stands of the Niagara Wheatfield gym to watch the Niagara Wheatfield and Niagara Falls dual meet last week.
Warren II and Lasut were tucked in the lower bleachers, talking with friends and smiling, but there was a certain tension about Lasut, likely a product of a mother watching her children compete. In the next section of bleachers, Willie’s mother, Morgan Goldsmith, sat with a group of Niagara Falls High School parents.
“It’s a fun little challenge,” Warren II said of the family’s wrestling rivalry. “We bother each other sometimes about it, ‘You’re going to lose, we’re going to win.’ We go after each other a little bit, but it’s a friendly competition, you could say.”
As the meet progressed, Lasut gripped a camcorder in one hand and yelled commands from her chair next to the bleachers, much like a coach. Warren II was a little more subdued, sitting in the stands with his youngest son, 4-year-old John.
Just before the 125-pound match, Justin gave Lasut a hug and a kiss, high-fived his father and various friends and family members in the stands, then bounced to the mat, where he prepared for his bout against Deandre Prum at 132 pounds. Justin won on a technical fall.
In the second-to-last match of the night, the McDougalds faced the inevitable: the cousins could face each other. But it didn’t happen, both to the relief and to the dismay of family.
“We were ready, if they sent Warren out, but it’s not fun wrestling your family,” Willie Jr. said after the Niagara Falls/Niagara Wheatfield dual match. “I’ve wrestled both my cousins before, and you don’t have the same aggression for your family as you do for some guy you don’t even know.”
Then, before he went to join his teammates to celebrate their win over their rival – and their relatives – Warren III admitted something.
“Deep down inside,” he said. “I didn’t want to wrestle my cousin.”
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