WESTLAND — Westland John Glenn wrestling coach Bill Polk has been at the helm for more than two decades and amassed over 500 wins, but he probably hasn’t dealt with a dilemma like this during his terrific tenure.
Granted, it’s a good dilemma to mull over, but a dilemma nonetheless.
Last year as a freshman, Nakayla Dawson was dominant at 105 pounds in the girls division, rolling to the Individual Finals championship and barely being tested throughout her MHSAA Tournament run. She finished the season 41-2. “I don’t think she wrestled more than a couple of minutes last year,” said Polk in reference to her postseason matches.
The ease of her title came as a surprise even to Dawson.
“I went in there thinking I was going to win, but I didn’t expect it to be that easy,” she said. “I was nervous for just about all my matches.”
During the regular season last winter, Dawson also happened to defeat four boys who placed in their division in the same weight class.
She’s 17-4 this winter and last Saturday won the 106 bracket at the New Lothrop Hall of Fame Tournament with three pins.
Given all that, it’s begging the obvious question as wrestling season gets into full swing with the holiday break over: Should Dawson just wrestle in the boys division?
“That’s what we are leaning toward,” Polk said. “That definitely is what she wants to do.”
If she does switch to the boys division when the tournament begins next month, don’t think Dawson can’t hold her own.
There was debate about whether she would wrestle in the boys division last year, but Polk said since she was only a freshman, the thought was to have her wrestle in the girls division her first season and then go from there.
Wrestling at 106 pounds this year, Dawson has had several close losses to ranked boys wrestlers. While hard to suffer those losses now, they likely will make her even tougher to beat come February and March.
“I’m hoping it will refocus her a little bit,” Polk said.
Being competitive and defeating boys is nothing that new for Dawson, given she grew up having battles with older brother Robert and younger brother Kyron, as well as numerous cousins.
Robert is a senior and one of the best wrestlers for John Glenn this year, while Kyron will be a freshman next season.
“Wrestling with them already set me up with wrestling other boys,” Dawson said. “(Robert) was bigger than me and stronger. I was already kind of used to wrestling boys.”
Polk said the sibling rivalry isn’t limited to just the house since he sees the battles between Robert and Nakayla in the wrestling room every day.
“They still do, are you kidding me?” Polk said. “You definitely see some brother-sister battling going on in the room from time to time. He’s helped make her a lot tougher.”
Dawson said the big difference she experiences wrestling boys compared to girls is the greater strength that boys possess compared to the flexibility advantage girls tend to have.
“I feel when I’m wrestling girls, I’ll be doing different moves,” she said. “It’s easier to get to my shots. With boys, I have to work for it more and set it up better.”
The success of Dawson and Morgan Irwin, a 2023 graduate who finished second at 115 pounds last winter, has been inspirational to other girls around the school.
“I feel like girls have looked at it and wanted to try wrestling,” she said.
In addition to wrestling, Dawson is also an accomplished sprinter on the track team, although she says she does that more to stay in shape for summer wrestling than anything.
Polk said there is still a long way to go for Dawson to realize her full potential in wrestling, but by the time her high school career is done, she likely will be one of the all-time greats Polk has coached.
“Boys or girls, she is definitely one of the most accomplished we have had,” Polk said. “She can go toe-to-toe with any of the boys out there.”
Keith Dunlap has served in Detroit-area sports media for more than two decades, including as a sportswriter at the Oakland Press from 2001-16 primarily covering high school sports but also college and professional teams. His bylines also have appeared in USA Today, the Washington Post, the Detroit Free Press, the Houston Chronicle and the Boston Globe. He served as the administrator for the Oakland Activities Association’s website from 2017-2020. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties
PHOTOS (Top) Nakayla Dawson’s arm is raised in victory during last season’s Individual Finals at Ford Field. (Middle) The Westland John Glenn standout goes for a takedown in her championship match against Remus Chippewa Hills’ Natalie Gibson. (Click for more from High School Sports Scene.)
Dominic D’Ambrosio’s answer when asked at 5 years old if he wanted to start wrestling was probably a clue for what was to come.
“I remember when my dad asked me if I wanted to wrestle,” D’Ambrosio said. “I think I just said, ‘Sure.’”
It’s not that D’Ambrosio would be nonchalant or aloof when it came to wrestling. He’s quite the opposite, actually. The work he’s put in has him unbeaten at 43-0 as a senior, ranked among the top four at 138 pounds in Division 3, and threatening to become the Spartans’ first Individual Finals champion.
The clue was that D’Ambrosio was going to be calm and cool on the mat, and have a grounded view of the sport off it, which has also helped him reach those heights.
“When I was younger, I got an award for being a cool cucumber – the Cool as a Cucumber award,” he said. “When I lose, I just look at it as I can get better from it. At the end of the day, it’s just a game. It’s serious, the work you put into it, but it’s not so serious. If you lose, you just want to get better. I just like to get the work done.”
To be fair, D’Ambrosio doesn’t do much losing.
He’s dropped just nine matches during his four-year career, compared to 159 wins, and a third of those losses came against Dundee four-time Finals champion Braeden Davis, who is now unbeaten and ranked No. 5 in the country at 125 pounds as a true freshman at Penn State.
D’Ambrosio was 14-0 as a freshman when COVID-19 ended the Spartans’ 2020-21 season short of the postseason. He placed third at the Finals as a sophomore, and fifth as a junior.
He has his eyes on the ultimate prize this year, and for a moment he allowed the thought to get him out of his even-keeled nature. But even that doesn’t last long.
“It would be pretty special,” he said. “I’ve been working hard for it. But, either way, I’m just going to go and leave it all out there.”
D’Ambrosio is the son of Imlay City coach Tony D’Ambrosio, which in some cases could create more pressure. But not this one. And a lot of that could be credited to Tony.
“We always tried to keep the pressure low and just have fun,” said Tony D’Ambrosio, who is in his 10th year at the helm in Imlay City. “We just focus on getting better. He’s always just wrestled. It’s just how he is. Dominic doesn’t even look at the brackets. He doesn’t find out who he’s wrestling until he shakes hands.”
What happens after they shake hands isn’t what one would expect from someone who could win that same Cool as a Cucumber award every year.
D’Ambrosio’s matches typically don’t last long. Of his 159 wins, 105 have come by pin, including all three of his wins at the 2023 Individual Finals. As a junior, he set the school pin record at 41. This season, 32 of his 43 wins have been by pinfall.
Just four of his matches have gone beyond the first period this season, and only two of those have gone the distance.
“This year, he’s really been turning it all on,” Tony D’Ambrosio said. “He didn’t start pinning a lot until later on into middle school and high school. It’s just basic stuff, not anything fancy. He’s a nice kid, but when he’s on the mat, he’s going to turn you over.”
Dominic isn’t a thrower, and his pins aren’t the result of catching an opponent in anything fluky. He’s just meticulous, and able to take advantage of any opening he’s given.
“I’m (working on a half Nelson) 100 times, 200 times during the week, so I’ll be able to hit it during the weekend,” he said. “If I got somebody’s head, nobody is getting out of it. I can just flow really well into a pinning sequence.”
As he pins his way through the season, D’Ambrosio is racking up awards. He’s been named Most Valuable Wrestler at four tournaments bouncing between 138 and 144, and at one point found himself ranked No. 1 by Michigan Grappler at 138.
As you would expect, he hasn’t allowed that to get to his head, and as his father puts it, “the only ranking that matters is the podium.”
With District tournaments this week, D’Ambrosio now can focus 100 percent of his efforts on getting to the top of that podium. But don’t expect the pressure to mount in his house or on the mat.
“It would be special,” Tony D’Ambrosio said. “But, again, as long as he goes out there and just does what he does, and does his best – it’s kind of like the NCAAs, you have to have a good weekend. It doesn’t dictate who you are. It would be awesome, and it’s a great goal to have. It would be a great goal to accomplish and be the first (from Imlay City). But wherever he ends up, I’m going to be proud of what he’s done.”
Paul Costanzo served as a sportswriter at The Port Huron Times Herald from 2006-15, including three years as lead sportswriter, and prior to that as sports editor at the Hillsdale Daily News from 2005-06. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Imlay City’s Dominic D’Ambrosio, right, wrestles to a fifth-place finish at 132 pounds in Division 3 last season at Ford Field. (Middle) D’Ambrosio, right, takes to the mat during his early years in the sport. (Below) D’Ambrosio, right, works to pin an opponent. (Top photo by High School Sports Scene; other photos courtesy of the D’Ambrosio family.)