“This should be a preview of the (AA) state championship match in February,” North Central wrestling coach Jason Brazell following his team’s defeating Bamberg-Ehrhardt on the ‘H’ tie-breaking criteria on Dec. 5, 2018.
Call it prophetic. Call it a hunch. Call it spot-on.
When Jason Brazell uttered those words following North Central’s 39-39 “win” over visiting and two-time defending AA-A state wrestling champion Bamberg-Ehrhardt, he said it with a smile. There was also a sense of self-assuredness in his voice.
When the Knights defeated rivals Andrew Jackson, Buford and Chesterfield, he never wavered from his stance that his team was circling Saturday, Feb. 9 at Airport High School. When Camden snapped the Knights’ 28-match win streak in January, their head coach repeated his refrain that this was one blip but another step toward wrestling for the AA-A state title.
Wednesday night, in a 54-27 dismantling of visiting Ninety-Six inside The Castle in Boonetown for the AA-A Upper State crown, the Knights (34-4) accomplished their goal of reaching the state championship match. Now, they stand a day away from a date with destiny and a return meeting with B-E, a 53-12 winner over Timberland in a match which decided the Lower State champion.
The AA-A state championship pairing, which will hit the mat at 11 a.m. inside the Airport High school gym, kicks off a four-match slate of pairings to decide the South Carolina High School league champions in the AA-A, 3A, 4A and 5A classifications.
Brazell, in his seventh-year as the NC boss, never wavered in believing that his team would occupy a bench in West Columbia on Saturday. As congratulatory handshakes and hugs were being echanged throughout the NC gym as well as in the stands, and without knowing the results of the Lower State finale, Brazell was almost hoping to see a different opponent on Saturday.
“I kind of hope we wrestle Timberland,” he said. “If we wrestle Bamberg, again, our kids might get a little hot-headed because we already beat them and they might think, ‘We got it’ and we might slack off a little bit.”
Before making plans for Saturday, the Knights had the matter of Ninety-Six staring them in the face. The Wildcats were three years removed from being a program without having won a duals match. Under Roy Lemmons, they advanced to the Upper State finals after having blitzed High Point Academy, 63-17, and Andrew Jackson, 48-27, in their first two playoff matches this year.
While Brazell and company may not have had a detailed scouting report on the visitors, who trekked two hours and 20 minutes for Wednesday’s match, the convincing win over AJ raised more than a few eyebrows in Boonetown.
“Not much,” Brazell said when asked what he knew of the Wildcats. “I knew they had a good 220 (Cody Fleming) and that their heavyweight (Caljoul Gray) was decent. That was about all I knew about them.”
The match started at 170 pounds, which could not have been a better jump-off division for the hosts who had brothers and Andrew Jackson transfers Hunter and Kalab Haven wrestling in the 170 and 182 slots. Hunter, a senior and the last year’s AA-A runner-up at 152 pounds, was making his return to the mat after having suffered a knee injury in a win on Dec. 5. Haven was given his clearance by a doctor to return to wrestling on Jan. 1, but Brazell was being cautious as to when to let his senior loose. Wednesday was the perfect time.
Haven came out flying, scoring a takedown of Ethan Syswerda in the opening half minute and grabbing a quick 5-0 first period lead which stood at 7-0 before he put Syswerda on his back 55 seconds into the second period to give the hosts a quick 6-0 lead.
“Hunter’s been going 100 percent in the wrestling room for two or three weeks now,” Brazell said of his level of concern for Haven’s return to the mat. “I was very confident that he was going to be there for us. There wasn’t much worry sending him out, especially tonight.”
Younger brother Kalab, a sophomore and defending AA-A state champion at 160 pounds, got off the mat even quicker as it took him all of 71 seconds to pin Trace Rohrbach to give the Knights the 12-0 lead.
Starting with the Haven brothers worked to NC’s advantage, Brazell said.
“I knew they were going to be strong at 195 pounds to heavyweight,” he said of seizing the early momentum. “I’m glad we started with those two weight classes so that we could get some wins before we got to the weight classes that I thought we would struggle in.”
Ninety-Six lived up to its billing in the upper weight classes, with Ben Parsons, Fleming and Gray all winning by first period pins at 195, 220 and heavyweight, respectively, as the visitors took their first and only lead of the night at 18-12 after the first five of 14 matches had been contested. The hosts evened things at 18 when the Wildcats forfeited the 106-pound division to Paula Velez.
Bumping Dalton Smith to 113 pounds paid off handsomely for NC as the freshman pinned Noah Kessler with 1:02 left in the second period of a match which was knotted at 2-2 after one period. “I bumped our 106 (Smith) to 113 and he got a real big win for us,” Brazell said of the victory which put his team on top for keeps.
In a match that wrestlers from both sides went at it as if their cars were over parked, the Knights’ string of pins continued at 120 as Zach Roberts applied the hammer on Drew Hinton 53 seconds into the second period. Kyle Lesso went one better, needing only 36 ticks of the clock to pin Mason Brewer at 126 to hike the lead to 36-18. Cameron Hoffman provided NC with its sixth pin when he turned David Crittendon and stuck him with 1:22 left in their 132-pound pairing which, for all intents and purposes, put this match to bed as the advantage mushroomed to 42-24.
The Wildcats did a bit of window-dressing, getting a pin from Chance Hewett at 138 pounds before Jacklin Pedermon scored a takedown of Wade Bowers with 15 seconds left in the second of two 30-second overtime sessions in a match in which Bowers used a third period reverse and escape to even things at five at the end of regulation.
Leading, 42-27, Jordan Small put the icing on the cake when he pinned Ryan Latham with 49 seconds remaining at 152 pounds. The guests did not weigh in a 160-pounder, forfeiting to Taylor Slayton, to put the finishing touches on the 27-point win.
As he watched his team warm up on the mat minutes before Wednesday’s match, Brazell could be seen pacing from the sidelines. He smiled when asked what was going through his mind.
“I was super-nervous,” he said. “I was trying not to show it so that the kids would not feed off it, but I was super-nervous. This was our second time in this spot, but we got it done this time.”
With the state championship two days away, Brazell said nothing will change in his team’s workout regimen. The Knights were expected to have a conditioning day of practice on Thursday with Friday being devoted to making sure all wrestlers are on weight while reviewing Saturday’s match with B-E.
Brazell said he was more worried about germs and illness making their way into his wrestling room than he is with injuries in the two days leading up to Saturday. Other than this, this will be a normal lead-up to a Saturday morning match
“I know the flu and the sickness bug is going around. I just hope it stays away from our wrestling team for a couple more days. That’s my biggest fear,” he said. “As long as we can stay level-headed and not get over-excited we’ll be OK.
“We’ll stick with the same routine and hope it keeps working. I don’t want to change it now.”