It had been three years for South Jefferson and a decade for Johnson City, but the wait is over for both. The squads captured the Section 3 and 4 Dual Meet titles, respectively, after living up to their number one seeds.
For South Jefferson, the run had a lot of similarities to the one in 2010. In that year, the Spartans came into the Section 3 dual tournament undefeated and left as champions.
But the path wasn’t all the same, according to head coach Pat Conners.
“This was a new role for our program,” Conners said. “Instead of being the underdog this year, we were the favorite. That definitely wasn’t how it was three years ago. No one believed then that we could beat Fulton in the dual meet finals. I had people tell me if we even made the finals, it would be great for us. Then we knocked off Fulton to win it. There were people who felt that was an ‘on any given day’ kind of thing where the better team doesn’t always win. This weekend was different because I think our team proved that we are the best in Section 3 this year.”
It certainly looked that way. Prior to the tournament, (last Thursday) South Jefferson faced off with General Brown in a battle of teams ranked in the latest New York State dual meet poll. The lower-ranked Spartans came out on top, 40-25.
“Having that huge dual and knocking off General Brown only a few days before actually made me a little nervous,” Conners said. “We were confident going into the weekend, but sometimes it’s tough to get everyone refocused and ready so soon after a big win. But our team has a good mix of veterans and young kids and our six seniors did a nice job of leading.”
Things started off a little slow, according to Conners, in the first meet against Cicero-North Syracuse but the Spartans emerged with a 51-23 victory and followed that up with a 58-22 win over Cazenovia.
The next round brought Baldwinsville. The Bees took a 10-3 lead after three bouts, but South Jefferson responded, recording falls in four of the next five matches to take a commanding advantage. Registering pins were Trevor Cowles (160), Daniel Smith (170), Logan LaFlamme (182) and Ryan Charlebois (up a weight at 220). Despite forfeiting the last bout, the Spartans punched their ticket to the finals with a 43-31 result.
“In that case, the 160 to 195 pounders did the job,” Conners said. “They are all good wrestlers and when we get there, we count on bonus points. We’ve had solid balance all the way through the lineup this year, though. Our 99 and 106 pounders (Jared Carroll and Caleb Beach) are a combined 62-4. [132 pounder] Jon Crast has made a nice comeback from surgery. Many other guys have wrestled very well. What’s been really great to see as a coach this year is that the bigger our matches have been, the better the kids have wrestled. Our top wrestlers have won with bonus points and the kids who aren’t our top wrestlers have wrestled hard and given up only three points.”
That was true as South Jefferson topped squads such as Northern Adirondack, Victor and Cortland earlier in the campaign. And it held true in the finals when the Spartans met General Brown for the second time of the week.
In the championship dual, the Lions won five of the first eight matches. However, all five victories were by decision and with South Jefferson’s two pins and a decision, the score was knotted at 15. That was the last time it was close.
“Losing five matches but all of them only three point losses was big,” Conners said. “When you wrestle the other team’s top kids and keep it close, it’s as important as a big win on your side. We were tied and in good shape. And then we got on a roll and poured on points after that. We only lost one match the rest of the day.”
So a 15-15 tie turned into a 45-19 rout.
“Each week, we’ve been challenging the kids and they’ve stepped up stronger and stronger,” Conners said. “It’s rare to have a team wrestle well every weekend without real letdowns but this group did that. It was a total team effort and our depth played a big role. We had some guys stepping on the mat for the first time in the semis or finals while other teams were exhausted.”
That was one of the reasons Conners cited for the lopsided scores in the event.
“Our goal was to win the duals,” the coach said. “But I never, ever thought we would be as dominant as we were because of the caliber of teams in Section 3. I was not surprised that we won but very pleasantly surprised that our kids were as dominant as they were.”
Dominant enough to stand atop Section 3. But will that translate to the top of New York State?
Conners said he might reach out to Midlakes coach Steve Howcroft to see if a dual between the unbeaten Division II powerhouses could be arranged. (Midlakes is ranked first among small school teams). But whether that happens or not, it’s been a great ride for the Spartans as they demonstrated that they are among the Empire State’s elite.
Johnson City’s Return to the Top
Being among the elite is something Johnson City head coach Jordan Glenn can relate to very well. When he was a competitor for the Wildcats, he remembers his team being among New York’s best every season.
“In our heyday, from the early 90s to mid 2000s, there was a stretch where we didn’t lose to a Section 4 team for 10 years,” Glenn said. “I don’t think we finished outside the top 5 at the state tournament very often. Winning this weekend is absolutely a big deal for us because this is the first event we’ve won as a team in recent years. The last time we won Section 4 Duals was in 2003. This builds a good foundation for us and with a team full of juniors and younger wrestlers, we think we can raise the bar for next year and continue to excel.”
They excelled this weekend, beginning with a dominant 50-24 victory over Sidney in the first round of the event. The Wildcats got out to a 31-6 advantage and never looked back. The second dual was similar, in a 42-27 triumph over Vestal.
“In those first two matches, we were in control most of the way,” Glenn said. “We never take anything lightly because with duals it can come down to matchups and a coin flip. We knew those teams had potential to match up with us, but we were solid all the way through. Our depth also was important. We had a couple of guys injured and we were fortunate to have some other guys fill in and do very well.”
That was the case in the finals match against Union-Endicott. With the loss of state qualifier Greg Kleinsmith to injury, Johnson City bumped a number of wrestlers up a weight and adjusted the lineup.
One of the wrestlers stepping in was one of the squad’s few seniors, Ben Fay. With his team trailing 6-0 (Johnson City forfeited at 132), he took the mat for his first action of the tournament against Xavian Hughes, the top-ranked wrestler in the Section. He held the Tiger wrestler to a decision.
“Ben hasn’t necessarily been one of the guys competing for individual championships, but he had a solid performance. He filled a void and allowed maneuverability that we otherwise wouldn’t have had,” Glenn said. “He preserved points when we needed him to.”
Facing a 9-0 deficit, Johnson City took over, capturing the next six bouts. It started with a decision by Nick Bidwell at 145 and was followed by another three points for Joseph Hamdan at 152.
“Joe Hamdan was out of the lineup for the better part of a month with injury,” Glenn said. “This was his first competition back and he came through with three wins. The first two were by pin. In the finals, it was tougher. The lack of mat time got to him a little. But he found a way to win a close match in overtime. That turned out to be huge.”
Also huge were the flurry of bonus points the Wildcats racked up next with pins by Zach Colgan (160), Dominic Taylor (182) and Reggie Williams (195). Added into the mix was a technical fall by Conner Halladay at 170.
“When you have anchors you can count on like Zach Colgan and Reggie Williams, it sets the tone,” Glenn said. “We have a very strong core from 138 to 195 and those guys really came through for us.”
After Williams stuck his opponent at 195, Johnson City had a 29-9 lead.
Union-Endicott mounted a comeback, with Lucas Depofi and Andrew Brinser coming out on top at 220 and 285 to cut the team score to 29-18.
But lightweights Tyler Brazinski (99 pounds) and Isaiah Colgan (106) picked up victories by technical fall and pin, respectively, to put their team up 40-18 and clinch the championship.
“Tyler has had a really good week,” Glenn said. “He was bumped out of lineup last year and didn’t place in the section. But he came back ready this year and this past week alone he’s beaten three of the four top ranked kids in the Section. He didn’t get scored on by any of them. And Isaiah Colgan has been really solid all year. He won three matches at Eastern States and is certainly on a level where he can compete for a Section championship, as he did last year.”
Union-Endicott finished strong as Mikey Carr, Anthony Noce and Zack Bendick recorded falls in the final three matches of the dual to make the final score 40-36.
“We had the dual meet clinched, but their 113, 120 and 126 wrestled really well with three pins in a row,” Glenn said. “We did our jobs to have the lead that we did. We were talking [Saturday] night that we’re starting to develop a little bit of a rivalry with U-E after they beat us in the semis last year at this tournament. We know they are getting better and developing; you can see the progression with their wrestlers. As for us, we set lofty goals this year and even though we didn’t do as well as we hoped at U-E Duals [in early January], we are excited to be back as the top Dual Meet team in Section 4 this year.”
Back at the top. South Jefferson and Johnson City earned it after their performances this weekend.