UNDEFEATED -- but just barely. The Eagles of Braxton County can still lay claim to the honor of being the only wrestling team in West Virginia to not taste defeat in the regular season. But they had to hold on by the skin of their teeth to win by one half of a point over Williamstown in the closest Little Kanawha Confrence Tournament ever in 36 years.
Amazingly enough, the real excitement of the LKC championship finals (which usually feature several “barn-burner” matches between close rivals) was on paper, where for those keeping a running score, the drama was obvious.
I’ll start with the consolation semifinals. First of all, work commitments kept me from getting to the tournament until after 3 p.m., just as the consolation semifinals were beginning. At that point, Williamstown had a fairly comfortable 123-108 lead over Braxton. But a lot of ground can be gained in the consolation rounds and that’s exactly what Braxton did, winning six matches to Williamstown’s four.
As the consolation finals began, Braxton had pulled within 6 points, trailing the host Yellowjackets 149-143. Of the seven matches that featured either a Williamstown or Braxton wrestler, three of those were head-to-head battles, with Williamstown coming out on top in two of the matches. Williamstown’s Casey Biddle started the round off with a technical fall over Braxton’s Matt Morris at 103, but Braxton’s Bub Yurkovich quickly answered with a 23-second pin over Calhoun’s Jason Brewer. The 119-lb final saw the Jackets take another head-to-head match as Tim Haddox decisioned Colin Wine 8-3. But once again the Eagles answered back, this time with James Harris’ 8-2 decision over Ravenswood’s Josh Currey at 125.
After three matches that didn’t involve wrestlers from the top two teams (Wirt’s Justin Dennis and Brian Smith won at 130 and 140 respectively, and Clay County’s Robert Stutler won at 135), the stage was set for the 145-lb match between Williamstown’s Mitch Buck and Braxton’s Andy Stewart. Buck, who has been sidelined with an injury sustained last wrestling season, was appearing for the first time this season. Stewart was forced to wrestle with a face mask because he cut his eye in his previous match which left him with seven stitches and a taped-up head for his final match of the night. It appeared that the face mask would be just enough of a hindrance as Buck was ahead 7-4 late in the second period, but in the waning seconds of that period Stewart turned Buck on his back for the pin as the buzzer sounded. The pin by Stewart brought Braxton to within a half-point of Williamstown, 156.5-156.
Calhoun’s Denny Cottrill helped Braxton’s cause with a pin of Matt Seckman at 152. Seckman was the final Williamstown wrestler in the round and Braxton had one more to go – heavyweight Justin Ritter. Following wins by Ritchie’s Mike Goff (160), Ravenswood’s Jeremy Nester (171), St. Marys’ Pete Hashman (189), and Wirt’s Tom Karr (215), Ritter stepped on the mat to see if he could put his team in the lead. It didn’t take to long to answer the question, as he registered a pin of Clay’s Heath Cliver at 1:49, putting the Eagles up 161-156.6 going into the championship finals.
The 103-lb final between Calhoun’s Chris Morris and Ritchie’s Andrew Hosey started out a little slow as Morris held a 2-0 advantage at the end of the first, and was leading 5-0 in the second when Hosey got a reversal with 16 seconds left. Hosey chose down to start the third and finally got the escape he was looking for with 17 or 18 seconds left in the match, but the clock didn’t stop. I’m not sure why, but the seconds were never put back on the clock and the match resumed with 14 seconds left, and Morris upped his record to 26-2 with the 5-3 win.
Williamstown’s hopes of a win at 112 was a bit of a longshot, as Bob Brookover found himself paired with defending state champion Ash Gandee, whose only loss this year has been a 5-2 decision to Parkersburg South’s Matt Bosley. Gandee had Brookover on his back for a majority of the first period, but the Jacket sophomore was not about to give up. Apparently not satisfied using his upper body for the pin, Gandee turned around and gave the legs a try, using them to secure the pin with seven seconds left in the first.
Gandee’s teammate Isaac Andrick stepped on the mat next to face Calhoun’s Travis McCartney. After a scoreless first, Andrick won the coin toss and deffered. McCartney interestingly enough chose up, and the strategy appeared to work as it looked like he was going to be able to work Andrick from the top. But then it appeared as the strategy might not work as Andrick got an escape for the first point in the match. McCartney recovered with a takedown to go ahead 2-1. Andrick also chose up to start the third and was on his way toward some back points when he was stopped for a potentially dangerous hold with 43 seconds left. McCartney got a reversal with 17 seconds left and took Andrick to his back with four seconds left to take the match 6-1.
At 125, what could have been one of the biggest matches of the night - a match that would pit two two-time defending state champions against each other – never happened. Calhoun’s Jimmy Johnson injured his back in the semifinals (in a close 5-4 decision over Braxton’s James Harris) and chose to forfeit his match with Williamstown’s Ash Wenmoth rather than aggravate the injury. The crowd was not at all pleased with the decision, voicing their displeasure both when the announcement was made that Wenmoth won by injury default and again when the awards were handed out. Even though the win made Wenmoth the first three-time LKC champion on the night, it was a bit anti-climactic.
Will Westbrook stepped out onto the mat for his 130-lb championship final wearing an odd-looking pair of white canvas shoes that don’t even closely resemble the high-tech shoes that many young wrestlers are used to seeing and wearing today. The shoes just happened to be the same shoes that his father Dan wore in the finals of the 1968 LKC tournament, in which the elder Westbrook grabbed a title for Williamstown in the 123-lb weight class. Unfortunately, the shoes didn’t bring Will the same luck they did his dad as he lost a tight 2-0 decision to Ritchie’s Jason Hayhurst, who by the way was making his fourth appearance in the LKC finals. Hayhurst had the Rebel fans fired up from the start and made them happy by scoring the first takedown, which would ultimately be the only points scored in the match. Hayhurst won the coin toss and deffered, with Westbrook choosing down to start the second. He couldn’t break free from Hayhurst’s grasp, and Hayhurst, despite being hit with a stalling call late in the second, managed to keep hold of Westbrook for the entire period, knowing that the choice of position would be his to start the third. With Westbrook on top in the third, Hayhurst knew the match would be his if he could just stay off his back. Westbrook was working hard for the back points near the end of the match, but came up short, allowing Hayhurst to take the 2-0 victory. That victory made Hayhurst the 24th three-time LKC champion in 36 years, and to celebrate his accomplishment, Hayhurst flashed three fingers at the end of the match and again when the awards were made.
One has to give credit to Westbrook. At the start of the season it didn’t look as though the defending state champion would wrestle at all this year due to a severe injury. He didn’t let it keep him down though, and made his season debut at the WSAZ tournament. Although his fifth-place finish at the WSAZ wasn’t nearly as glamorous as his individual WSAZ championship in 1999, it still was a victory for the Yellowjacket senior. And then to come within two points of an LKC championship is quite an accomplishment. Repeating as a state champion this year is going to be a challenge for Westbrook, but he’s already proven he has the guts to overcome the injury and go for it all. Don’t be surprised if you see him right back out there center-mat come Saturday night of the state tournament.
Will’s brother Tyler Westbrook was also a finalist for the Yellowjackets in the 135-lb finals, facing former LKC Champion and Most Valuable Wrestler (1997) and four-time LKC place-winner Josh Cross from Wirt County. Cross went ahead 2-0 in the first and started the second on top as Westbrook chose down. Cross tried unsuccessfully to set up a cradle on one side of the mat early in the second, but then had a little more luck with it at the other side of the mat, grabbing three back points. Those back points would be all he needed to win the match 5-0.
When top-seeded Lee Cummings of Roane County became ineligible to finish the season, Braxton’s C. J. Foster and Williamstown’s Joel Zyla became the first and second seeds, respectively. With the quickest pin of the finals, a minor upset, and a huge win for Williamstown, Zyla put his team up 168.5 to 161 over Braxton with his 46-second pin of Foster. Zyla is one wrestler you never want to underestimate. Coming off a third-place finish at the WSAZ (he lost 6-2 to Winfield’s Nick Prather in the semifinals), he now has his sights set on defending the individual region 1 title he won last year.
One moment I fondly remember from the 1998 LKC finals is that of a jubilant 14 year-old freshman leaping off the mat into the air after pinning his opponent, a defending state champion. Two years ago Ravenswood’s Adam Schindler became the LKC’s Most Valuable Wrestler when he pinned Calhoun’s Jimmy Johnson in the 112-lb finals. I don’t know if it’s maturity or that fact that winning has just become seond nature to him now, but Schindler was a bit more reserved when his hand was raised after his 12-6 win over Ritchie’s Rhett Koslosky at 145. Schindler, one of just a handful of still-undefeated wrestlers in the state, looked primed to add another pin to his record (I might be off by a pin or two, but I think 29 of his 34 wins have been by pinfall this year). However, Koslosky didn’t want to become a statistic and fought off the pin not once but twice in the second period, and even got a reversal with one second left. The Rebel wrestler chose down to start the third and brought himself to within five points of Schindler with an escape and subsequent takedown, but Schindler answered with a reversal just 18 seconds later with 30 seconds left on the clock. Hit with a stalling call, Schindler let Koslosky up to make it 12-6, which ended up as the final score. When Schindler won the LKC as a freshman, it looked as though Ravenswood might have a shot at a four-time LKC champion of their own, but Schindler sat out last season, so unfortunately he won’t have the chance to take home four titles, but should be a favorite to take his third next year.
Ritchie County’s Nat Smith has known the thrill of being a state champion (1998 champion at 140), but has never gotten the chance to become an LKC champion. Coming into this year’s tournament as the number 1 seed, Smith was battling the flu Saturday and did manage to win one match (a semifinal pin of Calhoun’s Denny Cottrill after getting a bye in the first round) before succumbing to the illness Saturday night and forfeiting the title match. Unfortunately for Williamstown, the victory went to none other than Brian Justice of Braxton County, bringing the Eagles to within a point and a half (168.5-167) with a string of three more Eagle wrestlers waiting for their chances to become LKC champs.
Bring on Tony Hardway at 160, who took home the title for the Eagles at the very same weight last year. Even though mathematically his match didn’t clinch the title for Braxton, Hardway was wrestling as though the title depended on the outcome of his match as he scored a takedown just seven seconds into his match with Chad Murphy of St. Marys. Staying right with his opponent, Murphy quickly answered with an escape, and the two went back and forth for the entire first period in what was a fun match to watch. Hardway found himself ahead 7-3 going into the second and chose down when Murphy deferred the choice. Hardway scored another two points with a reversal before registering the fall at 3:10. Little did he know at the time, but Hardway’s pin would give Braxton 173 points, which ultimately would be enough to claim the team title.
The coaches made a wise choice in naming St. Marys’ 171-pounder Robert Kimball as Most Valuable Wrestler. He scored two upsets en route to his title, and chose to win his final match the hard way rather than accept an easy win (which hopefully I can explain clearly enough a little later). First of all, Kimball came in to the tournament as the number three seed behind Braxton’s Bobby Hart and Ravenswood’s Jeremy Nester. I don’t know if Kimball had faced Hart earlier in the season, but I got to see Kimball and Nester wrestle at Ritchie County in December, where Nester had little trouble with Kimball, cruising to a 15-4 major decision. But Kimball turned the tables on Nester in Saturday’s semifinals, taking a 5-4 decision which would pair him up with Hart, who had only lost twice before Saturday. The two wrestlers battled through a scoreless first period, and Kimball went ahead with an escape in the second. Then, near the edge of the mat, Hart picked up Kimball’s ankle and then dropped down on his chest – a move that the officials ruled as a technical violation. Kimball was down for a while and (please correct me if I’m wrong) had he not continued, would have won the match by disqualification. But Kimball admirably chose to suck it up and held on for the 2-0 win.
The loss by Bobby Hart meant David Hart would have to stay off his back in his 189-lb title bout with Williamstown’s Ryan Delebreau. With his team trailing by 4.5 points, Delebreau knew that he would at least have to score a major decision for the team title to go to Williamstown. Behind 4-2 going into the second, Delebreau tied the match with a takedown with 30 seconds left in what became a wild exchange of scoring. Hart managed an escape with 10 seconds left, but Delebreau got another takedown with three seconds left and took Hart to his back to gain two nearfall points at the end of the second. Delebreau chose down to start the third and Hart let him up and appeared to have a takedown all but locked up when he grabbed Delebreau’s foot and had him hopping to maintain his balance. Just as Hart tripped Delebreau and it look as though he would get he takedown, Delebreau pulled a Deli a move for which I found out he’s famous. Just as he was tripped and heading toward the mat, he flopped over and got out from underneath Hart and prevented the takedown. However, Delebreau wasn’t able to score any more points in the match, making the final score 9-5, which gave his team just four points and left them a half-point shy of the team title.
At 215, Roane County’s Roy Moore found himself behind Ravenswood’s Dana Raban 11-3 and on his back when he decided to turn the tables and put Raban on his back, but neither wrestler was able to hold down his opponent and Raban went on to take the match 13-9.
Ritchie County’s Thomas Naylor has just two losses on the year, and they were both decisions to AAA wrestlers (5-4 to Ripley’s Nathan Utt and 6-0 to North Marion’s Jim Gaines). He entered Saturday’s finals determined to better his runner-up performance from last year, and he wasted little time doing it as he downed Calhoun’s Jeremy Laughlin in 1:13. Laughlin was a very good sport though, as he gave Naylor a congratulatory hug after the match.
I thoroughly enjoyed this year’s LKC tournament, and I got a lot of fodder for this article thanks to Brent Sams and Pat Peters. Brent let me come up and sit at the head table (something I’ve never done), where he introduced me to Pat Peters. I’d corresponded with Pat through email, but we’d never met in person. Brent kept me updated with current results throughout the final three rounds, and thanks to Pat’s outstanding efforts with the history of the LKC, I was able to pick up on some tidbits. The tournament program book was one of the best I’ve ever seen. Complete with an alphabetical list of tournament champions and the years that they won, a list of four-time and three-time individual champions, team scoring and individual champions from all of the previous 35 LKC tournaments, team bios, and weight class breakdowns showing individual wrestlers along with their records and year in school, this program book left a fan wanting for nothing in the way of statistics. Anyone who is a stats junkie such as I am would eat this kind of thing up. Hats off to Pat and all the hard work he put into compiling the statistics, which he started last year when he found out Williamstown would be hosting the tournament. Let’s hope that whoever gets next year’s tournament will keep the statistics current.
Since the program book listed all of the team results from the previous LK’s (the participants and fans of the Little Kanawha Conference prefer to simply call it the “LK”), we were able to determine that this year’s tournament was the closest finish in tournament history. In 1990, Spencer defeated St. Marys 135-134.
Brent pointed out something of interest. While Tony Hardway’s pin at 160 sealed the victory for Braxton, had it not been for their statistician, Braxton would have had to settle for the runner-up position while Williamstown took home the team trophy. After the points were posted at the end of the consolation semifinals, the statistician noticed that two points scored by Braxton in the first round had not been awarded. After examining the results, it was found that Braxton got credit for a decision in an opening round match that should have been a pin. So, all you statisticians out there, remember that you’ve got a very important job to do too, and you never know when you can be the hero for your team!
Well, the 2000 Little Kanawha Conference Wrestling Tournament is now history, and I just want to say thanks for everyone who was a part of this tournament for making it so interesting and enjoyable. Thanks also for giving me some good stuff to write about! Best of luck to all the wrestlers in their respective regional tournaments. Don’t be surprised when (not if) you see several of these wrestlers in Saturday night’s finals of this year’s state tournament. I’ll see you then!
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