SMITHFIELD — After his wrestling team finished in a three-way tie for the regular-season championship in the Two Rivers 3A Conference, Cleveland coach Scott Riley knew his Rams would have to get it done on the mat Saturday in the individual conference tournament to claim one of the league’s two playoff berths.
The Rams did just that.
Cleveland placed six wrestlers in the finals and won five of those matches, four by pin, to take home the championship and claim the league’s top seed in the dual-team playoffs. Western Harnett also grabbed a playoff berth with a second-place finish in the event at Smithfield-Selma High. Cleveland and Western had finished in an unbreakable three-way tie with Corinth Holders during the dual season.
“We were excited to come out on top,” Riley said. “It’s kind of nerve racking when you practice Monday and then don’t practice all week (because of school closings). This is real important for us because we wrestled a pretty tough dual schedule and we wouldn’t have made it in as a wild card. We are only 11-6 and we wouldn’t have made it in (as a wild card) on win percentage.
“This was our only way in. The kids knew that. Our kids have really come through in the finals. They turned it on today.”
Cleveland, which won its second straight conference tournament championship and was a regular-season champion (co-champion this season) for the third straight year, totaled 200 points in the tournament. Western Harnett was second with 183.5 and Corinth Holders third with 162.
Western Harnett’s John Black, who was named conference coach of the year, was happy to be going home with a playoff berth secured.
“That was our goal,” Black said. “I was worried all week because of the weather and not being able to practice. But we wrestled well. It worked out well for us. It wasn’t the best day we could have had, but I’m happy.”
Corinth Holders, which went 12-4 overall, didn’t advance to the dual playoffs as a wild card. Havelock (19-3) had a better winning percentage than the Pirates.
“I’ve got a great group of kids,” said Corinth Holders coach Eric Wischhusen. “We lost eight seniors last year. For any team in this state to lose eight seniors and do as well as we did this year, it’s something to be proud of.
“I’m proud of my boys.”
Cleveland’s Jhavonte Moon was named the conference’s wrestler of the year. Moon was one of four Rams who won weight-class titles by pin on Saturday, getting a pin in the second period against Smithfield-Selma’s Tyler Talley in the 145-pound weight class.
Moon’s pin clinched the team title for the Rams, giving them 188 points. Western Harnett had no more finalists at that point and Corinth Holders was too far behind to make up the ground.
“We’re a young team,” Moon said. “It’s good to win something like this because it gives the team energy. Our team is full of sophomores and seniors. There is only one junior on the team. We are on the way up.”
Moon repeated as conference champion at 145.
Sophomore Matthews Cruz-Cruz started Cleveland’s run with a third-period pin at 126 pounds, topping Jose Pachecho of Western Harnett in an important head-to-head match between wrestlers from two of the teams fighting for the title.
“If we beat Western Harnett, it will show that we improved because we lost to them earlier in the season,” said Cruz-Cruz, who won a conference title as a freshman in 113 pounds last year at Rosewood High. “I went for the pin.”
Cleveland’s Derrick Applewhite won a tough 8-6 decision over Triton’s Hunter Young at 132 and Chanse Wallace got a pin for the Rams at 182 pounds. Paul Mefford, a senior who Riley said was one of his most improved wrestlers, capped the day with a pin at 285.
Western Harnett got titles from Anthony Thompson at 106 (a pin), Brennan Patton at 120, Nathan Zak at 138 and Jordan Guimont at 152.
Corinth Holders picked up victories from Darius Dunn at 113, Luke Turner at 160 and Dillon Barton at 195.
Barton, a 175-pounder who is wrestling in a significantly heavier weight class this season, was ecstatic after winning two straight matches to claim the title.
“This is the best day of my life,” he said, smiling.
Smithfield-Selma, which finished fourth with 108 points, got victories from Robert Hicks at 170 (a pin) and Chris Parker at 220.
Triton was fifth and South Johnston sixth.