NEWLAND — It takes a little over two hours to reach Avery County High School, where the 1A West Regionals for wrestling were held on Saturday morning and afternoon.
No one from Mount Airy was complaining about the long bus ride, however.
A year after graduating two individual state champions, Granite Bears head coach Cody Atkins wasn’t sure how his team would fare when it came down to the individual duals tournament this season. Mount Airy had finished as regional runners-up in the dual-team tournament, but Atkins believed his personnel was better suited to that format.
As it turned out, he didn’t have to worry. The Bears stepped up their game in the individual duals, and qualified eight wrestlers for the state finals this coming weekend in Greensboro. One of the eight, 152-pound senior Chris Butera, redeemed himself from an upset loss in the Northwest 1A Conference championship match by claiming the regional crown. Four other Bears, Barron Pilson (106), Joan Ramirez (138), Austin Tumbarello (160) and Jackson Tumbarello (170) came in second, while John Bennett (182) placed third overall. Eric Olvera (195) and Armando Estrada (145) also earned their way into the regionals by finishing fourth.
Butera wasn’t the only local wrestler to come away with a regional title. Perhaps Surry County’s best chance for an individual state champion this season hails from down the road in Pilot Mountain. East Surry’s Mitchell Edwards took the West Regional title at 195 pounds after a dominant performance. The senior, who is 25-1 on the year and unbeaten against North Carolina competition, put away Jacob Langston of Swain County in the finals of his weight class.
Edwards was one of four Cardinals who earned tickets to Greensboro on Saturday. Morgan East scored a third-place finish at 285, and was joined by Austin Vernon (106) and Joseph Becker (152) as wrestlers who will represent East Surry this weekend.
Butera, now 40-10 on the season, came into Avery County as a man on a mission. He earned a first-round bye as the NW1A runner-up, then took on Dillion Knighton of Polk County in the quarterfinals. He pinned Knighton 42 seconds into the second period and duly earned a rematch with the wrestler who’d beaten him in conference, East Surry’s Becker. Each owns a victory over the other this year, but Butera claimed the rubber match, pinning Becker 23 seconds into the third period. In the final, he outlasted Payne Anderson of Robbinsville, whom he hadn’t been matched up with when the teams met in the dual-team tournament. But he scored a 4-3 win over Anderson (35-12) to win the regional title.
Ramirez actually wrestled just three matches. He had a bye in the opening round, then slipped past Brennan Chapman of Rosman for a 3-2 decision win. In the semis, it was just as close as he beat Isaiah Carr of Mountain Island Charter, 7-6. But in the final, undefeated Jude Lloyd of Elkin decisioned him to improve to 42-0 on the season.
Bennett’s regional third-place finish required that he wrestle five matches. He narrowly decisioned Barron Srabian of Murphy 2-0 in the opening round, then pinned Cyle Ponchot of Swain late in the second period to reach the semifinals. Avery County’s Blake Williams knocked him into the consolation bracket with a 4-2 win. Now Bennett, who ended the tournament with a 36-15 record, neded to win a consolation semifinal to advance to state. He scored an 8-0 win over East Surry’s Stephen Creech, then faced Ponchot (24-7) a second time in the third-place showdown. This time, it went to sudden-death overtime before Bennett scored a 9-7 decision.
Pilson (35-6) made it all the way to the final before losing to Averil Lafferty of Alleghany. Austin Tumbarello (31-10), who was only third at the conference meet, also rolled all the way into the finals, where he lost to Lucas Andrews of host Avery County. Estrada (23-12) made it to the consolation finals and finished fourth for his first trip to states. Olvera (27-6) did likewise at 195.
When it came to East Surry, all eyes were on Edwards, but three of his teammates will be joining him in Greensboro.
East, wrestling for the Cardinals at 285 pounds, lost a match two rounds in and had to pin Elkin’s C.J. Henderson to earn a spot in the consolation finals and a ticket to Greensboro. In the third-place match, he went to overtime with Noland Brown of Swain County but won 5-3. Teammate Vernon, at the other end of the scoresheet, also claimed a third place medal after reaching the consolation final, where he defeated Jaden Mohammed of Queen’s Grant. Becker, who was named MVP of the conference tournament and NCHSAA Athlete of the Week after he stunned Butera in the NW1A final at 152, wasn’t able to catch lightning in a bottle again, but he did have a solid tournament and ended up beating Sam Sneed of Cherokee in the consolation final to also place third.