By SHANNON HEATON
Northeast Florida Matmen
JACKSONVILLE — Three years is a long time to wait for a high school student. A long time to remember for a high school wrestler.
Rayquan Piper, Trent Dalldorf, Julion Fix, Narek Stepanyan and Darrell McBride were all freshmen the last time that Fletcher won the Gateway Conference meet on its traditional third weekend of January date. Of those five, only Dalldorf and Fix saw much time in the Senators’ lineup, and only Dalldorf was a regular starter.
Now seniors all, it was their last (for at least Stepanyan, who wrestled the previous two years at Atlantic Coast, the only) opportunity to “defend the island” and bring back the league hardware to Neptune Beach, with Sandalwood having wrested top honors away from Fletcher — champions from 2008-14 — in 2015 and 2016.
But from the start of December, and probably long before that, this has been a different Fletcher. And, Saturday afternoon, the Senators got a different result, as they dominated their way to the Gateway crown, with a 71-point gap between themselves and the runnerup hosts in Sandalwood, nine conference medalists, with five of those champions.
And, as well, a hard-won conference plaque to take back to the island.
“A.D.s expect coaches to win conference titles, and I promised mine I would bring this back to him,” Fletcher coach David Harrison said. “I can’t wait to put it on his desk Monday morning.
“Quite a feeling. Our watchword for the year has been `Dominate.’ We say it at the beginning of each practice, at the end of each practice, at the end of each meet. I think our kids did that. When you can be at a point in the tournament where nobody can touch you (as was the case going into the final round), you’ve done something pretty special.”
The quintet of seniors led the charge with their bracket victories.
First up was Piper, who didn’t go past the first period in either his quarter or semifinal wins, then shut down the offensive attempts of First Coast’s Jason Schwartz in the final, giving him just one escape in a 6-1 victory.
“Basically just trying to hold him down, keep him from getting in different positions. He’s got really good hips,” Piper said of Schwartz. “A lot of practicing did this. It feels great. Awesome. It shows where I’m at, at 113, shows that I can achieve whatever I put my mind to.”
Dalldorf, a three-time placer but never a finalist before this year, had two pins to get to the finals and needed just one scoring move to win his first title, putting on a strong ride against Mandarin senior Chase Mattox in a 3-0 decision.
“Sophomore year I was third, junior year I was third. Nothing had changed,” Dalldorf said. “It’s been a long four years. A real grind, a lot of time putting in the work. Definitely a whole different intensity this year, and it has been a big improvement.
“From the first day of practice, our coaches said we were going to take that conference championship, going to be bringing it back where it belonged.”
Perhaps none of the champs had their victory mean more than Fix’s win at 170 meant to him. A year ago, he was undefeated until an injury sidelined him for the season just 10 days before conference, plus the death of his mother weighed even more heavily.
“It’s really bittersweet. Most emotional day I’ve had,” Fix said after his 11-5 win over 2016 Gateway champion Dillon Morency of Sandalwood. “I wish my mom could be here to see, but I know she’s watching me.”
Fix had a fall and decision to reach the final, and was able to mount up plenty of offense to see him through.
“When I was a freshman, I came in not knowing anything. Some kid did an optional start against me and I freaked out, didn’t know what to do,” Fix said. “The next year, I cut almost 50 pounds, got kind of anemic and didn’t wrestle good because of it and then got hurt last year. I’ve been trying to catch up to (guys like former Senator William) Kohlhaas (a Gateway three-timer) as long as I’ve known him. It’s a huge reason why I’ve put so much effort into this group of people, trying to reciprocate what guys like Will gave me.”
The Fletcher team experience was one that Stepanyan had shared, but only off-season, prior to this year. While he wrestled with the Senators in the off-season at Beach Rats Wrestling Club, he was at Atlantic Coast. Prior to this year.
And he was the only Fletcher two-time champion Saturday, needing just 1:51 to fall Robert E. Lee’s David Johnson in a finals matchup of 2016 Gateway titlists. Stepanyan had two pins and a 1-0 win along the way to the final.
“I’d seen him wrestle a couple of times but I still had to wrestle my style,” Stepanyan said. “It definitely feels better (to get the win), and obviously I want to win conference, but my goal is state and to win state. This is one more step to state.”
McBride was a late comer to the sport, who had to be talked into it. Now, he’s a conference champ.
“I came out for one day of practice each year of the last three years,” McBride said. “(Fellow senior) Owen (Beining) said this year if I didn’t stay out I was a punk.”
McBride isn’t a punk, particularly so after having to wait for what seemed liked ages in a 5-minute discussion over whether he had picked up a takedown in sudden victory during the 220 final against Atlantic Coast’s Kurk Jackson. After a no-call was reversed to a takedown, McBride had a 7-5 overtime win.
“I was there, I was pretty sure,” McBride said of the takedown, and where his feet were located at the edge of the mat. “It’s been tough, with Owen and Julion and mostly Narek working me, he’s my partner.
“Winning makes me happy, because it’s my senior and year and we brought a title back.”
Fletcher had two additional finalists in James Knox (126) and Ivante White (132). Both lost to two-time Gateway champions from Raines, with Knox falling 10-4 to Joseph Haynes in the 126 final, after a pin and decision to get there, while White had two pins and a walkover in the semis to reach Raines’ Jaquan English, who set the tone in a 16-4 major decision.
Beining was third at 160 and fellow senior Matt Moffitt (138) also picked up a Gateway medal, taking fourth.
Fletcher is off until Friday, when it will compete in the Flagler Rotary, hosted by 3A-District 1 rival Flagler Palm Coast.