By SHANNON HEATON
Northeast Florida Matmen
YULEE — A program has achieved a certain level of skill when it takes two dual wins over its geographic rivals by a combined total of 97 points and still gets a come-to-Jesus meeting afterward with its head coach.
Following host Yulee’s defense of its Nassau County title Tuesday night, a title it has won for each of the past seven years under coach Brandon Crowder, he took them behind closed-doors to make sure every Hornet’s mind was right going into the Christmas weekend.
“We have to understand the gravity of what we’re going to go up against. Some focus and sense of purpose is good for us,” Crowder said. “We dont want to get a little complacent. We don’t want the kids to start getting fat and happy.”
With the Hornets’ next competition being their second annual Battle of the Border on January 7 — with a significantly-stronger field than last year’s five-team event — it was necessary at least to end 2016 on a good note, and it was for the Hornets (13-1 in duals), who took down West Nassau 70-12 and Fernandina Beach 60-21. The middle dual saw the Warriors win over the Pirates, 54-24.
As it turned out, Yulee trailed in both duals — after the first contested match only. After spotting the Warriors a 6-0 lead on Brice Burnsed’s fall in 24 seconds at 182, Yulee ripped off nine straight wins — seven via fall — to put that dual away.
Noah Winebarger (195), Jayson Ledford (220), McKenzie Lewis (285), Jacob Godsave (126), Zach Watson (132) and Grant Stanish (138) all had pins and Kyle Davis (106) adding a major during that run, with David Dry (152), John Parker (160) and Gunner Harrison (170) closing out the dual with falls.
It was Watson’s night that did draw praise from Crowder.
“He’s a kid that didn’t win a match back when he started in sixth or seventh grade, and now he’s turning into a very good wrestler for us. I’m proud of how he’s turned it around,” Crowder said of Watson.
William Tharpe (145) had the rest of the Warriors’ points against the Hornets, with a fall.
The situation was dramatically different for West Nassau (5-9) in the middle dual, as four Warrior wrestlers had falls, with five forfeit victories providing the margin of victory against a short-handed Fernandina Beach team.
Brendan Ferenchik (120), Bradly Kraai (132), Breyer Wood (160) and Blake Hodges (220) picked up pins for the Warriors, which returned to Yulee’s gym for the second time in four days.
“We lost six kids that we thought were coming back, so we were rebuilding again. We thought we would have a shot at conference with the kids I thought I’d have back. One of these years, we won’t have to be in rebuilding mode,” West Nassau coach Fred Avery said. “We have started nine freshmen and, overall, I am pleased. We have a lot of learning still to do.
“If we can keep everyone out, in a couple of years we’ll be strong. This year, though, we’ll be going to go more individual. The last couple of weeks have been about the team. We’re going to go back to basics a little bit over the holiday.”
The final dual gave Crowder some pause, with the Pirates (4-15) taking first blood with Robbie Elefterion’s fall at 220, and a key decision for Corbin Snyder at 138, plus falls from Joseph Helm at 170 and Nathan Manning at 182. Snyder, Helm, Manning and Justin Sabia (285) all had pins against West Nassau as well.
“We’ve gotten good, bad and ugly wrestling, and we’ve seen some ugly this week,” Fernandina Beach coach Mike Emanuel said. “We’re young, just two seniors, but the two seniors are quality. Going to work on technique, conditioning and strength, in that order.
“It’s been that way since I got here. The only way to get better is to wrestle through adversity against the toughest competition. Our kids don’t get discouraged. They keep wanting to get better.”
In contested matches, Fernandina Beach won four matches to Yulee’s three, leading to the Yulee skull session in the locker room post-dual, as the Hornets got falls from Stevie Chopek (120), Dylan Youmans (wrestling up at 132) and Parker.
“Some of our guys rallied well (from Saturday’s Yulee Duals, which the Hornets also won), a couple we’re not super happy with, but they’ll be fine,” Crowder said.
All three Nassau teams will be at Battle of the Border for their next competition.