(Editor’s Note: The story on Fleming Island’s team title — with quotes from all five of the Golden Eagle champions — will be coming Sunday afternoon).
By SHANNON HEATON
Northeast Florida Matmen
GREEN COVE SPRINGS — After nearly nine days away from competition, the post-season stretch drive for Clay — and for a lot of the northeast Florida region’s teams as a whole — began with this weekend’s 18th annual Green Cove Springs Rotary two-day tournament.
While the Blue Devils came up short in the task of defending their 2016 team title, they did rejuvenate themselves, finishing second — in the process doubling up the team total of third-place Florida High — and had nine medalists, including three individual champions.
Perhaps no Clay wrestler was more individually rejuvenated than Chris Merring (120), who blew through his bracket with five first-period falls. Merring needed just 2:43 to finish off three Friday opponents, then pinned Niceville’s Zachary Hartzog in 1:32 in the semi and Tampa Jesuit’s Luke Surak in 1:25 in the final on Saturday.
“I feel confident in whatever I do,” Merring said after the finals win, in which he worked two different nearfall combinations. “It doesn’t really matter which way I go. Some kids don’t get barred up, so you’ve got to do something else. It all depends on what works.”
Merring had spent a lot of time out of the Clay lineup with injury, and that time out was starting to wear on him.
“Last week was a little rough (in his first week back), but I’m back and feel better than ever,” he said. “Not practicing, not being in tournaments that I thought I could win, like Somerset (the first week of January)…I had never won them before, and I kind of wanted to. But I think it was for the best.”
Suwannee’s Chase Clark, who had lost 7-3 in the semis to Surak, came back to take third, with an 8-1 win over Mandarin’s Chase Mattox in the consi semis and then a walkover in the third-place match when his prospective opponent, Bishop Kenny’s Jack Delaney, had already wrestled five consi-round matches Saturday. Mattox took fifth by medical forfeit over Hartzog.
At 145, the Blue Devils’ Keath Sawdo had taken four shots at trying to win the Rotary. Winning only happened on his last shot on Saturday.
Sawdo had three pins on Friday, then majored West Nassau’s William Tharpe, 11-2, in the semis and took down Carrollwood Day School’s Grayson Fisher, 6-1, in the title match. In both the semis and the final, Sawdo had at least one scoring move in each period.
“Since it was my fourth and final time coming here, it’s great to finally be coming here and winning it, especially after not even making the second day my freshman year,” Sawdo said. “I think my offense was on in the semis where I want it to be. I still get a little worked up in the finals, but I think I’m ready for the final showdown at states.”
Sawdo’s offense has never been an issue, but his patience has increased with the wisdom of age.
“At first I went out and just was a bulldog, but my first match here, Coach Reape saw more potential in me,” he said. “We’ve worked on having more patience, making guys take bad shots and do bad stuff, and that’s allowed me to score more points and keep momentum going forward.”
Florida High’s Jake Richardson, who’d lost 5-4 to Fisher in the semis, rallied back to take third at 145 with decisions in the consi semis over South Walton’s Connor Metcalf (11-7) and West Nassau’s William Tharpe (5-3). Metcalf finished fifth, as his prospective opponent in the fifth-place match, Suwannee’s Joey Borrell, had wrestled five consi-round matches.
Patience was also what brought Clay’s Kurt Jackson a Rotary title at 220. After splitting earlier matches with Fleming Island’s Brandyne Mackey (winning 14-4 just before Christmas break at Buchholz, then falling at #UncivilWar2017), Jackson was able to escape from, and then outlast, Mackey in a 1-0 decision.
“He was just coming back from football season, and it was his first time back, but after that first match, I was pretty overconfident,” Jackson said of going into #UncivilWar2017. “This time, I knew I would have to be stronger, that I would have to be in better shape. I felt like I controlled his collars and I knew I could ride him out.”
That win for Jackson followed up a tournament run where he had four bonus-point wins, with two falls and an 8-0 major in the quarters on Friday and a fall in 1:27 over Bradford’s Eddie McCormick in the semis on Saturday. But Jackson knows his tough matches haven’t come to an end now that his matchups with Mackey have, what with the post-season — and all it entails — just down the road.
“As far as technique and gameplan, I feel solid there. I can always get in better shape,” Jackson said. “Just working on the small adjustments and fine-tuning.”
St. Cloud’s Fidel Lara, who lost to Mackey by fall in 1:19 in the semis, came back for third with a 6-4 win over Orange Park’s Tyler Dehart in the consi semis and pinned McCormick in 1:36 for third. Episcopal’s Freddie Dollison took fifth by rule over Dehart, who wrestled his fifth match Saturday against Lara in the consi semis.
In addition to its three champs, Clay had a pair of finalists as well, with Peyton Hughes (126) falling in the finals to The Master’s Academy’s Devin Kohn, 7-2, in a weight class that by acclaim on the floor of the gym might have been the toughest bracket of the weekend. Likewise, Kaleb Collins reached the finals at 195, only to fall in the final to Fleming Island’s Ryan Smenda, 3-0.
Cody Taylor (138) added a fourth for the Blue Devils, with fifths going to Dylan Fabiani (132), Justin Merring (152) and Ryan Rivers (285).
Dickman takes OW: Creekside finished 11th in the tournament, with 88 points, led by the title run of 170-pound junior Brandon Dickman.
Dickman dominated affairs on Friday, with two technical falls and a first-period pin to reach the semis. That dominance continued in the semis on Saturday, although it was a bit dicier, as Dickman gave up a turn before falling St. Cloud’s Bryce Bakken in 1:49. Then, in the final, Dickman outlasted Orange Park’s Nartorian Lee, 3-2, in a battle of 2A region rivals.
“I just learned I had to work harder. That’s all it came down to,” Dickman said of the learning experience his first loss of the season, sustained at the previous weekend’s Flagler Rotary tournament. “I hate losing. Nothing I hate more.”
Dickman showed both sides of his arsenal during the weekend, with aggressiveness and patience — particularly against Lee — and that netted him the tournament’s upper-weight OW award for the St Johns Knights.
“He’s a great defensive and also offensive wrestler, and I think we had a great tournament together,” Dickman said of Lee. “He wrestled a lot this off-season, too, and he’s kept our matches close.”
After losing in double-overtime to Lee in the semis, Arnold’s Cole Maddox rallied for third, winning by medical forfeit in the consi semis over Sandalwood’s Dillon Morency and then falling Bakken in 2:37 for third. Fleming Island’s Jalyn Robinson won by medical forfeit over Morency for fifth.
Creekside added one more medal in the tournament, as Corey Grower finished third at 195.
Northeast team outlook: Next up among coverage-area teams, after Clay in second, was Bishop Kenny, one of just seven teams in the 40-team field to score triple-digit team points (102.5 for 7th). The Crusaders were led by 285 finalist Josiah McCallum, with additional medals from Jack Delaney (120, fourth due to the 5-match rule) and Andrew Slade (138, sixth due to the 5-match rule).
Middleburg was eighth with 98 points, also earning three medals. Like the Crusaders, the Broncos were led by their heavyweight, Robert Barnard, who took third at 285. Tazz Hampton (106) and Bryan Heflin (182) added sixths for Middleburg.
Oakleaf, also, cracked the top 10, with a ninth-place showing, 95.5 points, and three medals. Ryan Rosano (113) led the Clay Knights with a third, with Ethan Gustilo (126) and Dexter Moore (195) both taking fifths.
Buchholz was 13th with 75 points and one medalist, as freshman Armando Acosta was fifth at 182, while Suwannee was 14th with 67 points and three medal efforts from Chase Clark (third at 120 as noted above), Joey Borrell (sixth at 145 as noted earlier) and Billy Jenkins (fourth at 160).
Bartram Trail and Orange Park tied for 15th, each with 64 points. The Raiders had two medalists in Lee at 170 and Dehart at 220, while Brooks Harp (195) placed sixth to represent the Bears.
Englewood was 18th with 59 points and two medalists in Michel Augustin (3rd at 182) and Karam Hill (4th at 285), while Gateway rival Mandarin was 19th at 58 points, with one medalist in Chase Mattox (5th at 120 as noted earlier).
Nassau County rivals West Nassau (56.5 points) and Yulee (55) were 20th and 21st, respectively, each with one medalist. Tharpe’s fourth led the Warriors, while John Parker took sixth at 160 for the Hornets.
Sandalwood was 22nd (53 points), with three medalists in Chandler Bell (fifth at 160), Morency sixth at 170 and Miguel Velasquez (sixth at 285). Episcopal, with fifths from Kyle Hopkins (113) and Freddie Dollison (220 as noted earlier), was 25th with 48 points.
Eddie McCormick (4th at 220, as noted earlier) led Bradford, which finished 28th with 44 points, while Matanzas got a sixth from Lawrence Russo (126) and was 29th with 38 points. University Christian’s Daniel Porter was sixth at 113, with the Christians scoring 18 points for 39th.
Other area teams in the field were Bolles & Fletcher (T-26th with 45 points), Columbia (30th, 37), Nease & Raines (T-32nd, 28), Gainesville (35th, 27.5), Ridgeview (38th, 20) and Bishop Snyder (40th, 11).