SOUTH BERWICK — Two-time regional heavyweight wrestling champion Michael Darling of Deering High was asked to reflect back on his freshman season.

Wanting to stay in shape for football, Darling tried wrestling for the first time that year. But practice was little fun. He was getting pummeled daily by an experienced Deering senior.

” ‘How is this helping me? I’m not getting any better doing this,’ ” Darling remembered thinking as a freshman. “But you come back the next year and you realize how it has helped. It’s taught you positions and stuff like that.”

This season Darling is the wrestler handing out the punishment. The senior wrapped up last Saturday’s Class A South championship with an impressive second-period pin against Zebulun Leavitt of Cheverus. The pin showed Darling’s craftiness as well as his strength and quickness, and improved his record to 37-1. Every win has been by pin.

Darling also won the regional title as a junior but didn’t place at the state meet, going 1-2.

This Saturday he’ll enter the Class A state meet at Noble High as a co-favorite with North champ Hunter Glidden of Nokomis. Like Darling, Glidden (38-2) is a wrestler who has improved his record dramatically as a senior. Glidden also pinned his way through his regional competition.

“I faced him last year and beat him but not this year. Obviously we’ve both improved,” Darling said.

Oceanside High in Rockland will host the Class B meet Saturday. The top four wrestlers in each weight division will be eligible to compete at the New England qualifer “all-states” tournament Feb. 20 at Mt. Ararat in Topsham.

Darling and Deering Coach Al Kirk point to Darling’s offseason experience wrestling freestyle and Greco-Roman as a key component to Darling’s improvement. He worked with Casco Bay Elite prior to his junior year and spent last summer training with the Maine Trappers.

“It gave him a lot of confidence on his feet,” Kirk said. “Freestyle does that.”

Last July he went with the Trappers to the Cadet/Junior national freestyle and Greco-Roman championships in Fargo, North Dakota. The “Fargo Nationals,” as it is often called, draws youth wrestlers from each state.

Darling won his first match but hyperextended his elbow. He wrestled through it. He didn’t win any more matches but gained from the experience.

“It made me see what I need to do to compete at that next level,” Darling said. “And you know, if I can hang with those guys I can hang with these (high school) guys. It really gave me a lot of confidence. It just made me realize, I deserve to be at the top of the bracket,” in Maine tournaments.

As Darling explains it, freestyle (i.e., Olympic style) emphasizes throws more than folkstyle (high school/collegiate).

“Because they’re worth more points, there are a lot more throws in freestyle,” Darling said. “It teaches you where you need to be to score, how your body needs to move and how you need to react to what they’re doing.”

Darling wins with quickness, balance and technical ability. He also has strength, but at roughly 250 pounds without cutting weight – “I’m not missing any meals, let’s put it that way,” he said – Darling is usually outweighed in the 285-pound class.

He likes to work “to the side” and avoid “getting underneath those 280 pounds.”

In last weekend’s championship match at the Class A South regional, his opponent was noticeably taller and heavier.

But it was Darling who was able to execute a slick one-arm, judo-style throw that sent Leavitt – the finalist from Cheverus – to the mat in the first period.

In the second period, Darling started in the bottom position and quickly extricated himself out from underneath Leavitt for another point and a 5-1 lead. Then Darling engaged the bigger wrestler in a dual bear hug. Darling got a bit lower, wrenched Leavitt onto his toes and then got him backpedaling. A deftly placed left foot behind Leavitt’s right heel sent both wrestlers crashing to the mat, with Darlng on top. The 37th pin came quickly.

“Didn’t I tell you he has great balance?” Kirk crowed moments later. “When Michael gets you in that bear hug he always ends up on top. Which isn’t the case for most guys. Because big bears like that tend to roll.”

Darling is hoping he can continue his roll and “be a state champion. That’s the main goal.” He is also serious about continuing to wrestle in college.

“The biggest possibility right now” is to attend Castleton State College in Vermont, which will begin varsity wrestling this year.

Regardless of what happens in the coming weeks and months, Darling knows he’s glad he started wrestling for more than its physical benefits. A self-confessed reluctant student, Darling now carries a 3.2 grade-point average.

“I’ve just never been a good student and wrestling has definitely helped to change that,” Darling said. “Wrestling is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Going to practice, you just say to yourself, ‘OK, I’m going to do this.’ And that’s a lot of what I do with my schoolwork now as well. I just sit down and say, ‘I’ve got to do this.’ “