Noble High wrestler PJ Exel won a Class A state championship this winter, two years after compiling a 6-26 record as a freshman. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

PJ Exel, 16, of North Berwick, picked the right time to win his first wrestling tournament. The 6-foot-2, 279-pound Noble High junior captured the Class A 285-pound individual title earlier this month by pinning Zach Mercier of rival Marshwood in the first period. Exel had been 0-3 against Mercier, including a loss by pin in the South regional championship.

Exel’s win in the state final was the first of four individual championships for Noble, which won its first team title since 2011. Not bad for someone who, as a novice wrestler, won just one match on the mat his freshman season. After going 25-23 as a sophomore, Exel is now 40-9 as a junior.

Q: You have a twin sister (Tori, who plays basketball and was the second-leading rebounder in AA South this season). What’s it like being a twin?

A: Well, it’s just like having a normal sibling. She’s there and she bugs me most of the time. But we always play games and have fun.

Q: It sounds like Tori is pretty athletic and your older brother Mark played sports. Were you always involved in athletics?

A: Yeah, starting with playing basketball until eighth grade and then wrestling as a freshman.


Q: So how did you become a wrestler?

A: During the summer I would always go to these football (weightlifting sessions) at 8 o’clock and Coach Gray (Noble wrestling coach Kevin Gray) would always be there telling me I should do wrestling and I always told him no, I’m going to do basketball. Then it came to freshman year when winter sports were starting and one of the senior captains, Hil (Keisker) said just come for the first day, see how it is. I signed up for basketball and I signed up for wrestling. I went to the first day of wrestling and didn’t go to basketball.

Q: Freshman year you come into wrestling with …

A: No experience.

Q: Had you ever gone to wrestling matches? It’s pretty big at Noble.

A: Not really. I’d heard how it helps you with other sports so I was interested when I got to high school to switch sports up.


Q: You had a 6-26 overall record as a freshman?

A: Yeah, five forfeit wins and then I got one pin at regionals.

Q: Did you wonder during that freshman year if you should have stuck with basketball?

A: Yeah, a couple times. Like probably halfway through freshman year I was like, ‘I don’t know if I want to keep doing this.’ But then I just kept on showing up.

Q: What made you keep showing up?

A: This team, the coaching staff.


Q: And getting that first win before your freshman year was over, what did that show you?

A: How I could work to be better.

Q: Could you feel yourself getting better even though you were continuing to lose matches?

A: Not really. Like some points I would but some matches I wouldn’t.

Q: Then how did you do as a sophomore?

A: Sophomore year I got better. I took fourth at regionals and then didn’t place at states.


Q: This year, you had placed second at regionals. What did you want to do at states?

A: Get to to the finals and wrestle Mercier again.

Q: You go from winning one match to two years later you’re a state champion. How did that feel for you?

A: It was crazy. I still can’t believe how freshman year to now, I’m a state champ.

Q: Did you hear the crowd after you won?

A: No. I pretty much zone everyone out except my coaches in the corner.


Q: So you didn’t see Coach Gray running around the gym and jumping up and down?

A: No. I didn’t see that. I wish I saw that.

Q: Your win is kind of inspirational. Do you think of it that way?

A: Yeah. Anything’s really possible. You just have to put your mind to it.

Q: Do you feel like you’re a better athlete because of wrestling?

A: Yes because with football it’s changed the way I can maneuver and also I started track (throwing the shot put) my sophomore year so that helped me get my footwork down.


Q: Have you ever had to consciously lose weight for wrestling?

A: Yes, this year I had to. I weighed 315 pounds (after football). I just got lazy and kept eating food.

Q: The wrestling season’s not over. What do you hope to accomplish these last couple of weeks?

A: Place at All-States and make it to New Englands.

Q: When you were a freshman were you ever thinking you’d go to the New England Championship?

A: No. Not even states my freshman year.

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