What a weekend.
A state wrestling tournament that started with snow ended with a glow and had a little bit of everything in between.
And one of the biggest takeaways from the three-day event was that some bold moves by Ron Higdon turned to gold.
Higdon, the NSAA’s assistant director in charge of wrestling, made some changes in the presentation and format. One of his bigger change-ups came during Saturday’s championship round, which started at 195 pounds instead of the traditional lightest-to-heaviest rotation.
It resulted in the tournament’s spine-tingling ending as JaVaughn Perkins finished off a major decision in the 182-pound Class A championship, capping his career with a fourth state title and giving Omaha North the team crown by a mere half point.
“You couldn’t ask for anything better,” Higdon said of not only the highlight moment but of the entire tournament. “I was (smiling) ear to ear all the way home.”
Not even the first rain delay in tournament history — Thursday’s wet snow seeping through the CenturyLink Center roof — brought him down.
Those in attendance watched an army of NSAA volunteers spring to action when the dripping water became an issue. Higdon said there were contingency plans in place to keep the tournament rolling.
“We had to worry about clocks and computers and cables and everything for the webcasting,” Higdon said. “We just have a great staff at the CenturyLink and a great group of volunteers. They did an amazing job of helping us overcome some of the obstacles.”
Higdon, formerly a longtime UNO wrestling assistant, has helped bring high school wrestling in the state into the technology era with his push to make the Trackwrestling program mandatory. The NSAA also did a good job of utilizing the arena’s new video board.
Higdon said that starting the final round at a weight other than 106 is something that could happen again. With two potential four-timers at the same weight, Saturday’s move was obvious as far as Higdon is concerned. Future changes could be done through a random drawing or possibly even a fan vote, he said.
“If we do stuff like that,” he said, “it allows us to highlight wrestling.”
Fantastic finish for Perkins
It takes awhile to sink in, but the Perkins nightcap did two things we may never see at the same time again.
The five four-time champions crowned Saturday were two more than any year in Nebraska state history. Centennial’s Doyle Trout will be the only one going for a clean sweep next year, and Millard South sophomore Isaac DeLoa is the lone wrestler in that class with those hopes still alive.
But having a three-day wrestling tournament with so many teams and so many points come down to the final period and the tournament being decided by a half-point — the closest Class A team race since a tie in 1947 — is incredible.
You could tell just how much it meant to Perkins — aka “Boola” — afterward. Within minutes he was in a long embrace with his older brother RaVaughn, a three-time champion for North, and tears were flowing. It was a touching moment.
Perkins obviously is a tough kid. He was a handful for opponents both on the football field earlier this year and on the wrestling mat. And he has a gold medal in each sport to show for it.
Cloyd in tough spot
Speaking of that final match, consider the situation of Millard South senior Anthony Cloyd.
He reached the state finals and had a chance to fulfill a lifelong dream of being a state champion. But if he was to lose, he had to worry about not getting beat by too much. The Patriots held a lead of 4.5 points going into the Perkins-Cloyd showdown, meaning Perkins needed at least a major decision over Cloyd to give his team five points and therefore the team title.
If you’re a coach, what do you tell your wrestler in that spot?
Turns out the coaches didn’t have to say anything. Cloyd fully grasped the situation.
“He actually told us,” longtime Millard South assistant Jay Meneely said to me Saturday.
Meneely said Cloyd, a tough competitor and top all-around athlete, came to the Patriot staff and told them what he needed to do.
“In no way whether we won or lost was it on his shoulders,” coach Doug Denson said.
Cloyd, a three-year starter at quarterback for Millard South, will play a key role next weekend for the Patriots in the dual tournament. Denson sees it as an advantage for his bunch going in.
“What we told our kids was, ‘You have a chance next weekend. It’s going to be the same trophy. You can receive the same gold,’ ” Denson said. “Every guy that thought they could do a little bit better, they have a chance to do a little bit better.”
Look at who’s on the same side of the dual tournament bracket with Denson’s bunch: North.
Loss to motivate Islanders
Millard South won’t be the only team with motivation going into the duals.
Top-ranked Grand Island saw its string of five straight Class A team titles halted with a weekend that could be described as disastrous.
The Islanders, normally so steady, were up and down from the jump. The roller coaster started during Thursday’s first two rounds when Grand Island moved only four of its 11 qualifiers into the semifinals. They bounced back with good consolation rounds Friday morning only to see two favorites get tripped up in the semifinals later that night.
It continued Saturday with the shocking pin of 220-pound senior Chase Reis, who was previously unbeaten. Reis is the heart of the team and it was clear how much it affected Islander coach Mike Schadwinkel.
Amazingly, the Islanders were shut out from gold medals for the first time since 2007.
It’s worth recognizing what they did the previous five seasons: Five straight team titles, 18 individual winners and at least three individual champions in all but one year.
Bits and pieces
I’ll empty out the notebook with some lasting memories from a memorable tournament.
» I wrote a story in Friday’s paper about O’Neill’s Tim Lechtenberg and the Eagles’ “Pins for Aidan” campaign. I ran into Lechtenberg in the hallway late Saturday and he was holding O’Neill’s runner-up trophy. Call it good karma.
» My favorite quote of the weekend goes to Omaha Skutt freshman Jeff Heinz. After upsetting the No. 1-ranked kid at his weight class Friday night in the semifinals, I interviewed Heinz about reaching the finals. He won Saturday and was standing around while I interviewed his teammate, senior Brian Peska. After our talk was over, Heinz had a question for me. “Do I get another interview?” It drew a good laugh from everyone around. But yes, something tells me that Heinz may earn more interviews in the future.
» We tried our best after the tournament to arrange a group picture of all five four-time champions. We were able to get three — Perkins, Blair’s Will Schany and Brett Velasquez of Bennington. I talked to all five in the week leading up to state. Talking to those three during the photo, you could hear in their voices and see in their demeanors how the pressure had been lifted from their shoulders.
We tried to get the other two — Colton Adams of Scottsbluff and Pender’s Jacob Sebade — in the photo, too, but things didn’t work out. Both undoubtedly were enjoying the sublime feeling of accomplishment.
All will have memories for a lifetime.