It likely wasn’t the state tournament they had grown up dreaming about.
They traded Albany’s 17,000-seat Times Union Center for a sports complex at Manheim in southeastern Pennsylvania. Section 6 wrestlers couldn’t sport their classic black-and-orange singlets, nor could Section 5’s don its signature royal purple.
Nearly a dozen area wrestlers were given the opportunity to compete at high school wrestling’s highest level, however, at the “Journeymen New York State Championships” from April 2-3.
The tournament, which was privately organized, served as a substitute for the annual New York State Public High School Athletic Association interscholastic wrestling championships.
Bolivar-Richburg, Pioneer, Olean and Portville each sent representatives to Spooky Nook Sports, home of North America’s largest indoor sports complexes.
Over 800 matches were wrestled across a sprawling 13-mat setup, and while the stage may not have been equivalent to state tournaments of the past, the level of wrestling was as high as it’s ever been.
“It didn’t feel like the state tournament from an arena standpoint, but as far as the competition level, it did,” Pioneer coach Chris Edwards said. “The wrestling was outstanding. You were meeting guys early on in the tournament that were high-level kids.”
Unlike years prior, the tournament was conjoined into a single division. Therefore, large and small-school wrestlers competed in the same bracket in each weight class. This significantly raised the difficulty level for local wrestlers who would only face wrestlers from classes B, C and D in a normal state tournament.
Wrestlers were invited based on prior finishes in sectional postseason tournaments, while those that did not meet the qualifying criteria could be recommended by their high school coach.
“NOT QUITE like the state tournament, but man, was it tough,” B-R coach Andrew Taylor said. “The competition was next-level. You had a lot of Division I-bound kids that have already signed and are top notch. It was well worth every penny we put in to going down there and letting these kids experience it.”
Of the 10 wrestlers that represented the Big 30, four were from B-R and three from Pioneer.
Pioneer’s Daniel Kirsch turned in a Big 30-best 3rd-place finish at 120 pounds after finishing 5-1 in the tournament. Kirsch, seeded third, started with three-straight wins before being edged by Long Beach’s Jeremiah Echevarria in a semifinal match that required an ultimate tie-breaker period.
Echevarria went on to win the tournament, while Kirsch stormed back to win his next two matches, both by six points or more.
“He wrestled phenomenal,” Edwards said. “He just wrestled great the entire tournament.”
Kameron Riordan represented the Panthers in a remarkably deep 145-pound class, while Alex Miley competed at 170 pounds for Pioneer.
B-R’s Dawsen Yates turned in a 4th-place finish at 132 pounds, wrestling all the way back to the consolation finals after losing a 5-4 decision in the first round.
“(Yates) opened the eyes of a lot of people,” Taylor said. “There were a lot of college scouts there.”
Yates, an unseeded senior, rattled off six-consecutive wins in the consolation bracket before being edged by second-seeded Jackson Polo of Cold Spring Harbor in the consolation final.
“He stayed mentally tough and grinded through it,” Taylor said. “He had seven matches in the first day. He’s just one of those kids. You can’t ask for enough of him.”
Despite missing the podium, Trent Sibble made it to the quarterfinals at 195 pounds for B-R, shocking third-seeded Cameron Bundy of Owego with a second-period pin in the first round.
Gary McDowell and Ethan Coleman also represented the Wolverines at 99 and 126 pounds, respectively.
“I HAD A couple of young kids that were out-experienced, but they gave their all,” Taylor said. “These kids are still, to this day, in the mat room busting their butts because they just can’t wait until next season. It was worth everything for these kids.”
Dakota Mascho, Portville’s lone representative, finished 4th at 160 pounds. Seeded fifth, Mascho edged fourth-seeded Eric Tigue of Minisink Valley in the quarterfinals with a fall in the ultimate tiebreaker period.
Mascho came back to edge Hornell’s Kade Slayton, 2-0, in the consolation semis before losing by decision in the final.
Nate Gabler wrestled at 152 pounds for Olean, while Connor Walsh represented the Huskies at 220 pounds.
As Edwards pointed out, Section 6’s wrestlers weren’t able to wrestle before the tournament. The section opted to push the start of its wrestling season back to May 3 while the rest of the state completed its season beforehand.
Therefore, the Pioneer, Portville and Olean athletes wrestled their first matches of the season at the Journeymen tournament.
“A LOT OF our Section 6 kids were at a huge disadvantage from the standpoint that we’re the only section that hasn’t wrestled,” Edwards said. “A lot of kids down there were only a week or two removed from practicing with their school team six days a week, while our kids haven’t even had a season.”
A faster tournament pace than usual was another adjustment, as wrestlers faced high-level matches at a quicker clip than they normally would.
Still, Edwards and Taylor each echoed their appreciation for the tournament and the opportunity it created for their wrestlers.
“For some of those guys, this was their chance to get up on a state-level podium,” Edwards said. “(It was) the only shot they were going to get this year. From that perspective, that’s what they were looking for.”
The tournament, Edwards said, helped to add structure to the lives of dozens of wrestlers.
“One thing that Covid has shown us working in a school is that kids really do need a lot of direction and a lot of interaction,” Edwards said. “Without that, a lot of kids have gotten lost during this phase.”
“The virus has really killed the mood for a lot of these kids,” he said. “You saw the happiness in all of their eyes being able to compete at that kind of level.”
(Jeff Uveino, a Times Herald sportswriter, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)