ALBANY - When Salamanca wrestling coach Mike Ekstrom took over the helm this season, he inherited arguably one of the school's best wrestler of all time in Ben Haas.
Haas took Ekstrom on a ride he will never forget as Haas captured his second straight state title Saturday at the New York State Public High School Athletic Association wrestling championships at the Times-Union Center.
"To be here and actually coach someone like that, you will never forget that," Ekstrom said. "I can coach for 30 years and that will be one kid I will always remember."
Salamanca senior Ben Haas celebrates his New York State Public School Athletic Association wrestling championship on Saturday at the Times-Union Center in Albany.
Photo by Joe Conti
Wrestling at 152 pounds, Haas recorded a major decision and two technical falls to advance to the championship round. But his finals match was anything but easy.
His opponent, Derek Pflueger of Section 3's Sandy Creek entered the match with a 43-0 record this season. Haas and Pflueger had combined for 505 career wins.
Win No. 506 belonged to Haas.
"You just look at him as a wrestler and you try to find their weaknesses and exploit them," Haas said. "This one means more because I had a lot better kid in the finals this year. He is a multiple state title holder. I can't believe I just did that. It hasn't sunk in yet."
It didn't look so promising for Haas early on as Pflueger rolled Haas and almost had him in a cradle for a pin. However, Pflueger did not have any dominant control of Haas and did not earn any points before the end of the round.
"It was big," Ekstrom said of being tied 0-0 after the first round. "Just the mental state of going into second round tied was huge."
In the second period, Haas started on top and Pflueger was able to get a two-point reversal for the lead. However, Haas quickly rolled back on top to tie the score 2-all. Pflueger ended the round with an escape for a 3-2 advantage.
In the final period, Haas started on bottom and was able to score a reversal for a 4-3 lead. From there, he held on for dear life and did not let Pflueger earn a point as Haas captured his second straight crown.
"Your whole chest drops," Ekstrom said of watching the final seconds tick off the clock. "This is the first time I have been here and I couldn't have a better kid. He is an all-around amazing kid. He deserves every bit of it."
In the semifinals, Haas won with a 19-2 technical fall over Tyler Newton of Section 5's Bolivar Richburg.
Unfortunately for Frewsburg's Nick Mitchell, the championship round was not as kind to him as he lost his match to Zack Zupan of Section 3's Canastota, 3-2.
Zupan opened the round with a quick takedown for a 2-0 lead.
Zupan proved he did his homework on Mitchell as he did not want to go to the ground with the Frewsburg senior. After the takedown, Zupan allowed Mitchell to stand up.
"The kid had great defense," Frewsburg coach Robbie Waddington said. "He didn't want to play on the mat with us. He had a game plan and he went right by the book to it."
Zupan did not allow Mitchell any opportunities for a takedown.
Mitchell's only other point of the match came in the third period on an escape. However, he was unable to get a takedown in the final minute.
Waddington knows exactly how Mitchell feels as he too lost in the state championship finals by a point.
"I lost the same way my senior year," Waddington said. "It's tough. Not taking anything away from Nick. He has had one great year and a great career. I am proud of him. I really am. He worked harder than any kid I have ever had. It makes it very hard. He deserved that championship. That kid is a worker. He deserved that state championship and he came up a point short. We gave it our all. I just feel for him. It takes a while to get over, but it pushes you to the next level. He is definitely Division 1 All-American material."
Mitchell's ticket into the championships did not come as easy as he won with a narrow 3-1 decision over Troy Seymour of Section 7's Peru.
After a scoreless first period, Mitchell earned an escape for a point.
In the final period, Seymour earned an escape for a point and nearly earned a two-point reversal. With the score tied 1-all and both wrestlers standing, Mitchell scored a takedown with 14 seconds left for the 3-1 victory.
At 126, Emory Rowe of Ripley lost his second match of the tournament in the first round as he fell to Tristan Rifanburg of Section 4's Norwich, 3-0.
However, due to an unusual rule that even Ripley coach Brad Rowe had a hard time explaining, Rowe was awarded another match.
Because a participant of a private school placed in the top five, a wrestler from a federation school also known as public school had the opportunity to place, allowing Rowe a chance at sixth place.
The Gardner brothers of Fredonia each had a stellar showing on Day Two.
In Dakota Gardner's first match of the day, he shot right away and earned two points for a takedown. The takedown set the tempo the rest of the way as he held a 6-0 lead midway through the second period and went on to win, 8-1, over Zach Marcel of Section 2's Corinth at 120.
Jude Gardner's first match was equally impressive as he jumped out to a 5-0 lead before earning a pin with 1:03 left in the second period over John Diekel of Section 2's Whitehill at 138.
The wins put the Gardner brothers into the next round. With eight mats being used during the tournament, both Jude and Dakota wrestled at the exact same time on mats next to each other. Their father, Jude Sr., sat between both mats to coach his two sons.
"It's ridiculous," Fredonia coach Alex Conti said. "They should make accommodations for brothers, I don't care what level it is, especially when the father is a coach in the corner. It gives an unfair disadvantage. It's huge. For him to have to split, makes no sense. It's a simple solution, all they had to do was bump a match."
Jude lost his match, 4-1 to Dan Reagan of Section 6 Lewiston-Porter. Seven seconds after Jude's match ended, Dakota's match ended with him falling, 4-0, to Scott Stafford of Section 4's Sidney. The loss put the brothers into the running for fifth place.
While those matches were going on, Rowe was competing for a sixth-place finish, but he lost his match, 3-1.
In Dakota Gardner's match for fifth place, he was unable to shake off a slow start as he fell behind, 5-0 after the first period. After a scoreless second period, Gardner attempted a comeback with two takedowns. Unfortunately, time ran out as he lost, 8-5, to Zach Ayen of Section 10's Governeur to take sixth place.
"The kid was tough," Conti said of Ayen. "We got caught in a cement mixer. It was tight. Any time you get caught in something that tight by a quality wrestler, I have no idea how Dakota didn't get pinned. Dakota came back and it was still in range with 15 seconds left.
"I think if Dakota wrestles that kid again, Dakota wins," Conti continued. "I believe that in my heart. He is an eighth-grader. Seniors make those mistakes. He had a phenomenal season. He is great to have around and was a hard worker this year. He showed a lot of growth and maturity. I'm pleased for him and his parents who put so much time in our program."
Meanwhile, Jude Gardner was the next match on the same mat his little brother had just lost on and did not fare any better as he was pinned in 57 seconds to Adam Greene of Section 4's Chenango Valley
Gardner came out and tried an aggressive move, but did not succeed and wound up getting pinned.
"He tried to go big and went swinging for the fences," Conti said. "I would rather see him go out there and throw stuff. That guy just caught him. I was pleased Dakota and Jude came through and placed for us. I can't say enough good things about Jude. He has been an awesome leader all year long. I am glad he is coming away with hardware. Sometimes getting a sixth place or not placing in this tournament and coming back is a lot better than coming in taking third or first and deciding your wrestling career is over. All four guys who were here want to be back next year and maybe they will do some extra work to make sure they are here next year and on the podium a lot higher up on the steps."
At 195, Maple Grove's John Nickerson was eliminated in his first match as he fell, 4-2, to Tyler Smith of Section 5's Midlakes. After holding a 2-0 lead, Nickerson could not hold on as Smith scored four late points for the victory.