POINT PLEASANT, W.Va. — Sometimes less truly is more.
After failing to send double-digit grapplers to the state tournament for the first time since 1999, the Point Pleasant wrestling team doubled its Class AAA state champions list from two to four following the 2016 WVSSAC meet held at Big Sandy Superstore Arena in Huntington.
The Big Blacks had a non-traditional season based on the program’s storied history as the Red and Black qualified only eight wrestlers to this year’s Class AAA state tournament, the lowest total in well over two decades.
Those limited numbers, however, proved to be more quality than quantity as PPHS had half of that field finish on the podium in their respective weight classes. Three of those four grapplers also found themselves competing for a state title on Championship Saturday Night, a first for the program in the Class AAA ranks.
Point Pleasant junior Grant Safford captured a 10-8 decision to win the 182-pound crown, while freshman George Smith scored a third period escape with 12 seconds left to win the 106-pound title.
The underclassmen duo became the school’s 20th and 21st championships overall while also joining Alex Reed (1998) and Trevor Hill (2013) as the program’s only AAA champions. Safford and Smith are also the 15th and 16th individual champions in PPHS history.
It was the first time in program history that PPHS had two state champions in the same Class AAA tournament, and the Big Blacks just missed on adding a third as senior Tanner Hill dropped a 5-2 decision in the 220-pound final.
Senior Hunter White — who ended his career with 150 victories — also finished the weekend third overall in the 170-pound division to round out the 2016 podium finishers.
After putting together nine consecutive tournaments with at least one state champion from 2005 until 2013, the Big Blacks ended a two-year titleless drought with the efforts of Safford and Smith this past winter. It was also the sixth time in program history that Point Pleasant had more than one individual state champion at the same meet.
Safford — who was a state runner-up at 195 pounds in 2015 — redeemed himself with a hard-fought 10-8 decision over Parkersburg South’s Hunter DeLong in the 182 division.
Safford trailed 2-1 at the end of the first period and was down 4-2 through two periods, but the junior earned an escape and a takedown in the opening minute of the third — giving him a 6-4 advantage. Safford twice increased his lead to three at 8-5 and again at 10-7 before ultimately claiming the two-point victory.
After being on the other side of the spectrum 365 days ago, Safford — who finished the year with a 41-2 overall mark — was humble in reaching the pinnacle of this sport.
“After getting to the state finals last year and losing, I can tell you that I truly appreciate how much this moment means right now,” said Safford, who owns a career mark of 125-22. “To work so hard after last year and get back to the state final is something to be proud of. To actually win it, this is truly the best feeling in the world. It’s definitely much better than last year.”
Smith — who finished his first varsity campaign with a 43-4 mark — became the program’s first freshman champion at the AAA level after earning an exciting 1-0 decision at 106 pounds.
Scoreless through two periods against Parkersburg South’s Tucker Windland, Smith started the third on bottom. After a constant battle to maintain leverage, Smith managed to escape Windland’s hold with a mere 12 seconds — which ultimately provided the bout’s only score.
In joining Rusty Maness — Point’s only four-time state champion (2008-11) — as the only freshmen to win state titles for the Big Blacks, Smith was overwhelmed by what he had just done.
“I’m blown away. I’m so excited to be able to accomplish this,” Smith said. “I really need to thank my teammates, my coaches and my dad, because they have all put a lot of work into me this season and over the years. I was fortunate there at the end, but I stuck to what I had been taught and it worked out for us. I’m just really thrilled and don’t know what else to say right now.”
With a 17-10 overall mark, four podium finishes and two state champions from their eight state qualifiers, the Big Blacks earned eighth place out of 34 scoring teams with 89 points. It was the fourth consecutive year that PPHS — currently the smallest AAA school in West Virginia — finished the state tournament in the top-10.
The Big Blacks’ best Class AAA season came in 2014 after earning six podium finishes while placing sixth with 107 points. PPHS was also sixth with 101 points and five podium efforts in 2013, while last year’s squad had three podium finishes and placed ninth with 77 points.
Point Pleasant joined Parkersburg, Parkersburg South and Cabell Midland as the only AAA programs with multiple state champions at the 2016 event.
The Big Blacks — before being bumped up to Class AAA during the 2012-13 campaign — had won three straight Class AA-A team championships in wrestling while also amassing seven individual titles during that three-peat.
With two state champions and three state qualifiers returning next winter to a roster that should be over half-full with varsity experience, Point’s return to the Class AA-A level has the potential to be what it was four years ago.
Coincindentally, the last time that Point Pleasant failed to send more than nine grapplers to the state tournament was during the 1994-95 campaign. Current PPHS wrestling coach John Bonecutter — who just finished his seventh season — was a sixth grader at PPHS during that 1994-95 school year.
Bryan Walters can be reached at 740-446-2342, ext. 2101.