POINT PLEASANT, W.Va. — First impressions go a long way … especially when realizing a lifetime dream.
The Point Pleasant wrestling team added six more student-athletes to its long list of state champions on Saturday night at the 73rd annual WVSSAC Championships held at Mountain Health Arena in Cabell County.
The Big Blacks entered the weekend with 24 champions in school history, which included five different occasions of winning a school record three individual titles at the same meet.
The Red and Black, however, had nine different opportunities on ‘Championship Saturday’ to re-write the record books … the Big Blacks proved to be more than up for the challenge.
After dropping a controversial decision in the opening 126-pound match that night, the Big Blacks reeled off three consecutive victories at 132, 138 and 145 pounds before suffering two more setbacks at 152 and 160 pounds — knotting their record up at 3-3 overall with three title matches remaining.
Senior Juan Marquez ultimately broke the school mark for the number of state champions at one meet with a thrilling 4-3 decision over Jacob Williams of Nicholas County in the 195-pound final.
Point Pleasant went on to win its final two championship bouts at 106 and 120 pounds, giving PPHS a Class AA-A record-tying six champions at one meet. Both the 2001 Oak Glen and 2017 Independence squads also churned out a half-dozen individual champions during their respective state title runs in those postseasons.
The Big Blacks ultimately had 6-of-8 non-title-winning competitors fall in the championship bracket to eventual state champions, but the night ended up being all about the half-dozen grapplers left standing atop the podium.
Three of those wrestlers — junior Isaac Short (120), sophomore Derek Raike (132) and sophomore Justin Bartee (138) — had already experienced the thrill of winning a state title the year before, and that discussion will come a little later on in the week.
For Marquez, junior Parker Henderson (106) and junior Mitchell Freeman (145), however, it was a night that none of them will ever forget. It was, after all, the first time in their young lives that they were included into such a special fraternity.
Freeman, a 3-time state qualifier and state runner-up at 138 pounds last year, made the most of his championship match experience from a year ago.
The junior — who also finished third as a freshman — stormed out to a 6-0 lead through two periods before finally surrendering a point to Oak Glen’s Jonathan Creese early in the final period.
Freeman, however, worked in a reversal moments later for an 8-1 edge — a score that ultimately held up over the final minute-plus of the match.
The win not only gave Freeman the first state title of his career, but also locked him in as the fifth different member of this year’s squad to reach 50 wins. The program previously had four 50-win grapplers — Anthony Jeffers (53, 2008), David Bonecutter (50, 2004), Caleb Duong (50, 2008) and Grant Safford (50, 2015) — in its entire history.
After the thrill of a podium finish his freshman year, and the disappointment of being one win short of a championship last winter, Freeman noted that this weekend’s experience was everything that he thought it would be … and more.
“This one really means the world to me. I’ve put a lot of work, blood and sweat into this over the years, so to finally stand up there on the top of that podium means everything,” Freeman said. “I’ve had a lot of added motivation after finishing second last year, and the experience of being in a championship final was helpful tonight. It drove me to work harder in the weight room, in the practices and in the matches through the season. It all paid off … and it feels incredible.”
Freeman won 3-of-4 matches by decision over the weekend and also recorded a pinfall in the opening round.
Freeman followed Christopher Smith’s heartbreaking loss in the 126-pound final, but also started a streak of three consecutive wins for the Big Blacks. Derek Raike and Justin Bartee — now 2-time champions as sophomores — captured titles in the 132- and 138-pound divisions.
Junior Wyatt Wilson and senior Zac Samson both followed with losses in the 152- and 160-pound championships, evening Point’s record to 3-3 with three matches to go.
Marquez — a 4-time state qualifier — was arguably the most unexpected of Point’s champions Saturday night, as the senior had only five wins at the state level in his career and was never a podium finisher before this past weekend.
And, as fate would have it, Marquez ended up being the grappler that set the new school record for numbers of champions at the same tournament.
After a scoreless first period, Marquez started the second period in the down position — but managed a reversal that provided a 2-0 lead. Jacob Williams of Nicholas County, however, managed to escape and cut his deficit down to 2-1 headed into the third period.
Marquez doubled his lead out to 4-1, but Williams countered with a reversal that again closed the gap down to 4-3. Shortly afterwards, Marquez went down with an ankle injury that required injury time with 1:08 remaining.
Hobbled, but determined, Marquez managed to hold on the rest of the way for a 4-3 win, allowing him to stand on the very top of the podium for the first time in his career.
Marquez — who finished the year with a 43-9 overall mark — was overcome with emotion following his match, but the senior couldn’t think of a better way to finish his Point Pleasant wrestling career.
“When I started wrestling in eighth grade, I never dreamed that I’d be standing on top of that podium,” Marquez said. “I’d never placed in my high school career, so to stand up on the very top of that thing tonight … that was amazing. I cannot even begin to describe it in words, but it was amazing.
“The best part of all of this is what we have done this weekend. We’ve gotten after it this year in the practices and in the weight room, making sure that we were all getting in the work that we needed to be the best we could be this weekend. Looks like the work has paid off, and it’s been amazing to be a part of that. It’s been a great weekend, and it’s a great way to go out too.”
Marquez’s win — the last of two decisions to go along with two pinfall wins — also started the second 3-match winning streak for Point Pleasant on the night, with junior Parker Henderson adding No. 5 in the 106-pound match against Geno Casuccio of East Fairmont.
Henderson — after waiting patiently for two years to be part of the varsity postseason roster — made the most of his first state appearance by scoring a pinfall and a pair of 10-2 major decisions en route to the championship match.
Henderson, however, was down 2-0 after each of the first two periods, but the junior managed an escape after starting the third period down — cutting the deficit in half at 2-1.
With 47 seconds left in the finale, Henderson managed a takedown that allowed him his first lead of the night at 3-2. Henderson, now in the top spot, kept Casuccio down on the mat the rest of the way.
Both grapplers — realizing the outcome was sealed — watched the final three seconds tick of the clock simultaneously, and Henderson’s reaction was one of being overwhelmed. After all, he’d just became a state champion in his first WVSSAC tournament.
Afterwards, the junior — who finished the year with a 49-4 overall mark — talked about the feeling of being a Point Pleasant state champion in the middle of everything else that transpired.
“We’ve done some unprecedented things this weekend and this season, particularly with the history books at Point Pleasant,” Henderson said. “It’s a little bittersweet to know that we are three points away from tying the state record for points at a double-A tournament, but outside of that … I don’t know what else you could ask for this weekend? It’s just been awesome to be a part of what we’ve done this weekend.
“This program is a brotherhood, and being able to be part of this with these guys is something I’ll be thankful for forever. It’s also nice to join another brotherhood at Point Pleasant in standing up there on top of that podium. That was the best experience of my life.”
Short completed the history-making evening with his second state title in the 120-pound weight class — the final match of the evening.
The night did not start well for Point Pleasant, but it wasn’t for a lack of trying.
After a scoreless first period in the 126-pound match, junior Christopher Smith escaped from the down position early in the second period for a 1-0 lead.
Blake Boyers of East Fairmont, however, scored a takedown for a 2-1 lead with time still left in the second frame. Smith was working on a possible reversal near the end of the period, but his move came one second after the clock expired — making it a 2-1 deficit entering the third period.
Boyers managed to escape early in the finale for a 3-1 lead, then both grapplers locked up while attempting to gain leverage. Smith worked Boyers to the edge of the circle and appeared to have gained a takedown that would have tied the match at three, but no takedown — or points for that matter — were awarded. Boyers ended up holding on for 3-1 victory.
Smith finished the year with a 50-4 record and had a pinfall win to go along with two decisions. Smith is a 3-time state qualifier with consecutive runner-up efforts and a third place finish his freshman year.
Wilson fell behind 7-2 after one period and was eventually pinned by Oak Glen senior Peyton Hall in the 152-pound championship bout. Hall, coincidentally, was a 4-time state champion and was named the 2020 Class AA Most Outstanding Wrestler.
Wilson — a 3-time state qualifier — finished the year 44-12 while wrapping up his highest finish on the podium. Wilson went 3-1 overall with a trio of decisions in getting to his first state final. Wilson was also fourth a year ago.
Samson — a 3-time state qualifier as well — finished his final season with a 45-10 overall mark after placing second in the 160-pound division following a 4-0 loss to Ben Kee of Herbert Hoover.
Samson — who placed fifth a year ago — recorded a 13-2 major decision and a pair of decisions en route to a 3-1 mark over the weekend. Samson ended up one win short of 150 for his illustrious career.
A story on Point Pleasant’s repeat champions will appear in the Friday sports editions of the Point Pleasant Register, Gallipolis Daily Tribune and The Daily Sentinel.
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Bryan Walters can be reached at 740-446-2342, ext. 2101.