PILOT MOUNTAIN — The 2017-18 Northwest 1A Conference wrestling season was down to its final two hours, and things weren’t starting off well for the four-time defending conference champions.
East Surry, the host school for this year’s conference tournament, had come on strong in the morning session, putting 10 of its wrestlers into championship matches. In the meantime, not everything had gone the way Mount Airy had hoped. The Granite Bears, who already had their fifth straight regular-season title in the bag, went into their lunch break on Saturday trailing the Cardinals by 1.5 points, 154-152.5.
When the teams came back from lunch, the consolation finals and the championship finals in each of the 14 weight classes were contested simultaneously. With such a narrow margin separating the Bears and the Cardinals, the 10 championship finals that each team had a wrestler competing in would be crucial to determining who would win the overall team title. In seven of the weight classes, East Surry and Mount Airy wrestlers would be facing each other, starting with the opening 106-pound weight class, where top-seeded Austin Vernon of the Cardinals faced No. 2 seed Barron Pilson.
Vernon had pinned Pilson back on Dec. 16, and looked to be having his way in their rematch as well. Displaying greater physical strength and a strong technique, the East Surry wrestler dominated the first two periods and led 9-2 in the third. Pilson chose the down position for the final two minutes and then pulled off an impressive move, executing what’s known as a ‘banana split’ in wrestling, where the wrestler traps one of his opponent’s legs between both of his, controls the other leg with his arms, and then just flips the opponent onto his own back. When a wrestler gets caught in this move, it’s difficult to get out of trouble.
“He caught him with a banana split. I’ve been working with Barron on putting his elbow in the ribs instead of getting out high when he’s got legs in, and he caught (Vernon) with that split and stuck him,” said Atkins. “He did what he’s supposed to do, so he’s obviously listening to me in practice. I’m proud of him, because that made a huge difference in the team score.”
When the referee called the pin, both Pilson and the Mount Airy sideline leaped up in exultation. The Bears had taken the lead in the team score, and after winning titles at the 120 and 126 weights not long after, they maintained a narrow edge the rest of the way, winning the title 194.5-180 over the Cardinals.
Wrestlers from five of the six schools in the conference were represented on Saturday. South Stokes came in third with 116 points, followed by North Stokes with 78.5 and Bishop McGuinness with 45. Winston-Salem Prep doesn’t wrestle.
“We’re actually a better dual team this year, while last year we were a better individual team,” said Atkins. “I knew that the individual tournament was going to be super-close, because East Surry and South Stokes were both going to have some champions. But after we got our full team back, after the football playoffs, we’ve been doing very well.”
After Pilson’s stunning victory, East Surry’s Jacob Haywood got the Cardinals back on track by defeating Cody Lawson of South Stokes at 113 pounds, while the Bears’ Daniel Troutman won the consolation final and took third.
At 120 and 126, the two schools were confronting each other again. At 120, the Bears’ Luis Osorno didn’t even have to wrestle in the morning, getting a bye into the finals and then taking on East’s Travis Dalton in the final. Osorno had beaten two other Cardinal wrestlers in meets earlier this season, and prevailed over Dalton as well. The 126-pound match went much the same way, with top-seeded Daniel Olvera getting a bye into the final and then beating Adam Rutledge of East Surry, whom he hadn’t faced previously.
It was East’s turn to win an individual title at 132, where top-seeded Kaleb Tilley downed wrestlers from both Stokes schools. The Bears’ Tripp Gilley helped his team’s cause by winning in the consolation final. Mount Airy finally lost a final at 138, as South Stokes’ Ricky Gonzalez got the better of Armando Estrada in the final, with East’s Adrian Caro claiming third place.
At 145, South Stokes’ Jackson Boles was the top seed, and the two rivals squared off in a morning match to determine who would face Boles. The Bears’ Joan Ramirez beat Tristin Russell in a de facto third-place match, but then lost to Boles that afternoon.
The Cardinals finally got some bragging rights at 152, where East Surry’s Joe Ramirez wrestled out of the 2 seed in a weight class where all five schools entered a wrestler. In the semis, Ramirez beat Kaleb Mitchell of South Stokes, and then faced top seed Chris Butera of Mount Airy for the championship. Butera had earned the No. 1 seed by virtue of pinning Becker on Jan. 9, but the Cardinal turned the tables on him this time. He controlled most of the match, and while there was a period of about 45 seconds in the third period where Butera seemed to have the upper hand, he never came close to getting Becker on his back, and the latter eventually escaped and won the match 10-4. Becker’s performance in his two matches was so impressive that he won Most Outstanding Wrestler honors for the tournament.
The 160-pound weight class saw neither school represented in the final, although the Bears’ Austin Tumbarello won third place in the consolation final. At 170, Mount Airy’s Jackson Tumbarello took on South Stokes’ Cooper Ross for the second time in four days. Tumbarello had beaten him 4-1 then, and had to ride him out for the full two minutes of the third period to win 1-0 on Saturday. The 182-pound weight class went chalk, with top-seeded John Bennett of Mount Airy beating East’s Stephen Creech in the final.
At 195 pounds, the Cardinals’ Mitchell Edwards will be one of the favorites to win the state title this season, but Mount Airy’s Eric Olvera gave him all he wanted. Down 4-2 with nine seconds left in regulation, Olvera scored a takedown shortly before the final buzzer and forced overtime, where Edwards flipped the script and scored a takedown of his own as time ran out in the extra session to win 6-4.
North Stokes’ Paden Lungrin beat East’s Victor Bacho in the final at 220 pounds, and then the two rivals met one more time. The Bears already had the team title in hand, but Morgan East had the last word for the Cardinals at 285, beating Mount Airy’s Nate Kiebler for the second time this season.
The teams will now move on to the dual-team state playoffs, where Mount Airy will try to improve on last year’s performance, when it lost in the state quarterfinals to eventual state champion Robbinsville. Quads for the first and second round of playoffs, slated for Tuesday night, should be announced sometime this weekend.
Reach John via Twitter at @johncate73.