STORY AND PHOTO BY JAKE DONOVAN
Centennial’s dream season on the mat continues, following up with its first-place finish in District 14-AAA with top honors in Tuesday’s district duals at Centennial High School.
As the evening’s tournament host, the Cougars took to the mat in eliminating Page in the semifinals before upending Independence 40-39 in the finals.
Dylan Ables needed just 0:51 to close out his 113-pound match, which ultimately sealed the win for the Cougars. The pin ran up the score to 40-15, putting the finals out of reach for the visiting Eagles who claimed four forfeit wins in producing the final score.
“Our goal all season to win the district,” Centennial coach Philip Pelkey said of the team’s focus heading into Tuesday. “We went to state the last two times, but not as champions so we wanted to up the ante.
“We wanted to win district, win region and then go into the state tournament on a high note. We took that first step today, doing so against two high quality teams.”
Ables’ win was the last of three straight pins for the Cougars, who helped quell a late rally following back-to-back pins by Gabe Hall (195) and Andrew Cannon (220) to bring the Eagles within 22-15.
It was the closest they’d come to continuing their season-long Cinderella story after eliminating the favored Brentwood Bruins, 44-28 in the semifinals earlier in the evening.
“The first dual (semifinals versus Brentwood), the kids wrestled like we thought they could,” Independence coach Jared Grindstaff said afterward. “We did our best to stay under the radar and just get better later in the year. We wrestled Brentwood earlier in the year and got beat pretty good.
“They were probably, on paper, favored to make the state duals. It’s cool to come out and show all the hard work exhibited all season.”
It was perhaps fitting that Independence’s final individual win of the night came through its 220-pounder in Cannon, who wasn’t even able to compete this time last year.
“Andrew Cannon wasn’t able to wrestle the past two seasons,” pointed out Grindstaff in admiring a comeback story for the ages. “We know what he’s capable of and it was exciting to see him. I think in seven matches he went 7-0 with 7 pins. He’s going to make some noise wherever we put him, probably at 220 or wherever he decides he wants to go (in the regions and beyond).”
Centennial kicked off the finals the same way it opened up the night—with Ethan Harvey posting a win. The 145-pounder doubled up Tanner Willett in a 23-11 win to give the Cougars an early 4-0 lead. Elijah Demelo put the Eagles on the board, holding Leo Gearhart scoreless after an early takedown to prevail 4-2 in their 152-pound match.
Three straight wins by the Cougars threaten to put the duals finals well out of reach, before back-to-back pins by Hall and Cannon reduced Centennials lead to seven.
Barely 3 ½ minutes worth of mat time was required over the next three matches for Centennial to close out the show.
“We just had a whole bunch of matches like this all year,” noted Pelkey of his team’s readiness at all times. “In our past seven team wins, we’ve outscored our opponents something like 421-84 so we’re getting really emotional for these wins.
“The trick is to come down real quick—celebrate the win and then immediately prepare yourself for the next one. You have to stay focused for every match. If you don’t, it’s all over, you lose everything that you just worked for.”
That very mentality propelled Independence into the finals, scoring a minor upset of the number-two seeded Brentwood Bruins in the semifinals.
A back-and-forth session saw Independence nearly blow its early lead, before a pin by Cannon over the Bruins’ Tank Starr in their 285-pound match put the Eagles back ahead. It ultimately proved to be a pivotal point in the session.
“Drew getting that pin, it was a huge momentum swing,” Grindstaff admitted.
Brentwood’s Zach Ordoñez needed just 0:22 to pin Phillip Shand in their 106-pound match, giving the Bruins its final lead of the night. Independence scored wins in each of the final four head-to-head matches, with Bailin Shrum pinning Griffin Peal in the 2nd period of their 132-pound match to propel the Eagles to the finals.
That it was the Eagles and not the Bruins—an early favorite to advance all the way to state—was of no surprise to the eventual district champions.
“I kind of went through it in my head a few times. Our focus was first and foremost on beating Page, you can’t overlook any team in this district,” noted Pelkey, whose Cougars bested the Patriots 63-12 to advance to the finals. “In being able to get past Page and then rewind how Independence and Brentwood started, I said to myself if Independence was able to win the coin toss that they’d have a good chance to win.
“I know they thrive on beating the higher-seeded teams. But honestly, we use that role to our advantage as well. We’ve beaten it into our heads that we’re the underdog, to immediately take that feeling away from any opponent.”
The Cougars did it twice on Tuesday, taking a big first step towards checking off all preseason goals in the process. They will now get to host Thursday’s Region 7 tournament match, while Independence’s hopes of advancing rely upon a road win versus Overton.