BRANDON — It didn’t take Otter Valley Union High School varsity wrestling coach Bob Bathalon too long to figure out he had something special in Forestdale resident George Mitchell.
Seven years ago, Bathalon was still coaching in OV’s youth wrestling programs when Mitchell, now a senior two-time Vermont wrestling champion, caught his eye.
“I started noticing back in 5th and 6th grade. When he came in there you’d see him start wanting more and more and more. He just took off,” he said.
What struck Bathalon were not only Mitchell’s quickness and ability, but also his intangibles.
“He had talent, but his work ethic was just amazing,” Bathalon said. “He just wanted more, harder stuff. You just couldn’t do basic wrestling with him. He needed more. He was quick. The more stuff you threw at him, the better it was.”
But even given that strong first impression, Bathalon probably could not, and would not, have predicted just how successful Mitchell’s career would be.
As a freshman, Mitchell finished third in Vermont at 112 pounds. He followed that up by claiming the Vermont 125-pound title as a sophomore, and last winter earned his 100th win on the way to the 130-pound crown.
On Saturday, Mitchell, 17, became OV’s all-time winningest wrestler with a one-sided decision over Champlain Valley’s Ryan Stearns, the No. 3 ranked 130-pounder in Vermont.
His career record stands at 159-18, one more victory than compiled by Jesse Bilodeau, a 2009 OV graduate and former teammate.
Mitchell, described by Bathalon as “very humble” and “soft-spoken,” credits his practice partners for a lot of his success. As a freshman, he battled daily with two other OV state champions, senior 125-pounder Tim Shields (whose career mark of 143 wins Bilodeau broke) and junior Alex Ramage. This year, he and classmate Seth Harrington, a 125-pound contender, keep each other sharp.
“I think a lot of it is practice partners,” Mitchell said. “My freshman year I got beat on by older kids. My entire life I got beat on by my older brother. This year I have a real good practice partner, Seth. It just kind of pays off after a while.”
The brother Mitchell refers to was six years older, and returned to OV wrestling as a sophomore, the same year Mitchell first gave youth wrestling a try. Mitchell is the youngest of seven siblings, including three brothers who wrestled. His father, Steve Mitchell, also wrestled.
Steve Mitchell said his family, including George’s stay-at-home mom, have backed George all the way.
“I do feel that champion wrestlers need total support from family as well as dedication to the sport,” he said.
Like four of his siblings, three of whom graduated from college and one of whom is now enrolled in a master’s program, Mitchell plans to attend college. “He also had wonderful role models within the family,” Steve Mitchell said.
Mitchell, who carries a 3.1 grade-point average, has narrowed his choices down to Vermont Technical, Castleton State and Plymouth State colleges. Only Plymouth has a wrestling program, but Mitchell said academics would drive his decision.
“I’ve got to focus on school when it comes to college, and it’s going to take up a lot of time,” he said. “But I haven’t written (wrestling) off yet.”
But there was no question Mitchell would wrestle at the youth and high school levels. He loves to play volleyball with buddies in the summer and dabbled with football as a second school sport, but switched to cross-country running in the fall because it took less time and would better get him in shape for his first athletic love.
Wrestling always came first, especially with the strong family background.
“My brother wrestled in youth and he started back up in 10th grade. That was when I was in 4th, so I decided to start. We both got back into it at the same time,” he said. “My family does it, too. I’ve been around it. I knew basically what to expect.”
Beyond that, Mitchell likes the one-on-one nature of the sport.
“If you win, then it’s all on yourself. But if you lose, then it’s all on yourself, too. It works both ways,” he said. “I like that. There nobody else to blame if something goes wrong, and if something goes right, it’s all on yourself.”
Even when accomplished older wrestlers like Shields and Ramage had the upper hand when Mitchell was a freshman, Mitchell said he did not get discouraged.
“You’re always making progress, though. It can be discouraging. But every day you get a little bit closer. One day you might finish a shot on them, and that’s a big thing. And the next day you might finish two,” Mitchell said. “You never get worse, so I don’t know if it’s discouraging. It’s more like motivational when you’re getting beat on.”
While wrestlers are alone on the mat during matches, Bathalon said Mitchell has always been a supportive teammate who has grown into a quiet leader and strong captain.
“He’s a leader, and they follow. He’s doesn’t have to speak,” Bathalon said. “He just does his own thing in the room, and they follow him. When they go to tournaments, they watch him.”
Bathalon said Harrington, who is coming on strong in part because of his daily work with Mitchell, is more of the team’s vocal leader. But Mitchell does not hesitate to share what he knows, either.
“He’ll go right over and go hands-on and show them what they’re doing wrong, explain to them,” he said. “He shows them, but he’s not a rah-rah guy. He cheers for them, but he’s soft-spoken.”
On the mat, Bathalon describes Mitchell as a poised, versatile and technically accomplished wrestler who is a student of the sport.
“When he knows he’s got competitors he’s going to wrestle, he’ll watch them. When he gets out there, if he’s never wrestled a kid, he’ll feel them out ... He won’t rush into anything until he feels how the guy wrestles,” he said. “He’s a smart kid. He’s a smart wrestler.”
But Bathalon said what truly sets Mitchell apart is just what he saw six and seven years ago.
Mitchell drives to Vergennes to attend camps in the summer, using the money from his part-time job in a pizza parlor to pay for his gas and car, and then comes to work out at OV’s camps, too.
And he never gives less than 100 percent in practice, the coach said.
“The kid just works all the time,” Bathalon said. “He works hard, and it shows in the room.”
Mitchell is now in the home stretch of his career. The state championships are in the belly of the beast — perennial state champion Mount Anthony will host on Feb. 24 and 25, and the No. 2 wrestler at 130 is a Patriot. The New England tournament, at which Mitchell fell one victory short of a podium appearance last March, comes the weekend after.
Mitchell wants his third straight state title, 180 career wins, and just maybe a New England crown.
“Last year’s New England’s was a big highlight, coming one match from placing. That was a lot of motivation for this year,” he said.
There, maybe Mitchell’s effort will be rewarded.
“That’s what comes with individual sports,” he said. “It’s all on you. You’ve got to put the time in, or you’re not going to get anything out of it.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected]