Tie, Then Victory
Publisher, Sussex County Online
Photos: 189-pounder Kiante Walker, 140-pounder Jameik Matthews, and heavyweight Zach Slatcher.
Laurel High School wrestling coach Tom Pavia saw nothing but puzzled looks on Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2003, when he took his wrestlers into an empty gymnasium to look up at the rafters.
There, Pavia said, was a major gap between the Bulldogs' one Henlopen Conference Southern Division wrestling title banner and the championship banners for other sports at the school.
"They had no clue what I was doing," said Pavia. "I told them it's time to close that gap."
The next day, the Bulldogs took a major step toward adding another wrestling banner to the rafters with a tie-breaking victory over defending South champion Smyrna on Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2003.
In one of the most memorable dual meets in Henlopen Conference history, the Bulldogs used every last means at their disposal to claim Wednesday's victory, as Jason Ward not only tied the meet 27-27 with a pin in the night's final match, but also gave them the criteria they needed to be awarded the victory.
After about five minutes of discussion and figuring, Laurel was awarded the win by falls, with two pins to Smyrna's one. Kiante Walker scored Laurel's other pin in the 189-pound match.
While still early in the season, the victory gave the Bulldogs a 3-0 conference record and put them in the driver's seat for their first Southern Division title since 1983 and the program's first berth in the Division II dual meet state tournament.
That the win came against a Smyrna program that has terrorized the South for decades -- the Eagles have won 28 of the 32 South crowns since the division was formed in 1970 -- made the victory that much sweeter.
"When the awards and titles are not thought of as being important anymore, it's the memories that will be special," said Pavia. "These are the memories that last a lifetime."
Trailing 27-21 after a major decision by Smyrna's Patrick Blissard in the 145-pound match, things looked bleak for the Bulldogs.
But Ward, wrestling just his second match of the season at 152 after wrestling at 171 last year, summed up the strength he needed to put Smyrna's Brandon Carney on his back in the second period and register the winning pin at the 2:27 mark. Ward took a 7-4 lead into the second period.
The events sent officials and coaches scrambling through the critieria used to determine dual meet winners in the event of a tie, and sure enough, Ward's pin not only tied the score but gave Laurel the difference between victory and defeat.
Referee Ed Janvier and Ron Eby (former Smyrna coach) of the state wrestling committee pored through the rule book to be sure they used the right criteria to determine the winner, and after the teams tied 7-7 in matches won and neither team had an unsportsmanlike conduct call, the outcome came down to the number of pins.
"In a situation like that, I'm not always clear-minded and I have to rely on my assistant coaches, who are phenomenal," said Pavia. "But I went up to Ed Janvier (referee) at the head table before Jason's match and said, 'It's 27-21, and if we pin here, is it just a tie or do you go to criteria?'
"Ed said he wasn't sure and we'd have to get the rule books. Eric Buckson (Polytech coach) came up to me after Jason's pin and told me we won. I was real excited, but cautiously excited. It felt like 30 minutes, but it was probably about 5 or 10 minutes before we knew."
Ward's pin capped a topsy-turvy night in which neither team led by more than five points until Blissard's major decision at 145.
Starting with the 160-pound match,Smyrna took a 4-0 lead with a major decision only to see Laurel bounce back with a decision by Ricky Ralph at 171 and the pin by Walker at 189 for a 9-4 lead.
Walker used a high-crotch takedown to get Smyrna's Thomas Wright off-balance and then drive him to his back and to the pin.
"Kiante is sometimes a phenomenal wrestler and other times he gets out of position and gets into troublesome position," said Pavia. "I told him I didn't want him to get tied up because Smyrna is notorious for headlocks and Kiante is notorious for getting tied up. Kiante drove him and drove him. He was really hungry for the pin. His lip was even bloody because he was so aggressive going for the pin."
Smyrna immediately regained the lead on a pin by Josh Cherriman at 215, but a decision by Laurel's Zach Slatcher in the heavyweight match put Laurel back on top, 12-10.
Marc Saylor followed with a decision at 103 for a 15-10 Bulldog lead, but Smyrna responded with a decision and major decision at 112 and 119, respectively, to go ahead again at 17-15.
The Bulldogs regained the lead with a decision by Will Saylor at 125 for an 18-17 advantage, but Smyrna would win three of the next four matches to move ahead 27-21. Only Jameik Matthews, with a decision at 140, won for Laurel during that stretch.
"This is a team that didn't know how to win as a team before," said Pavia. "Ben Ralph beat Scott Cahall on a major decision earlier in the year and even though he lost to him, he was pretty excited at the end of the match because the team had won and he was part of that team. It was a paradox because he didn't win as an individual and he didn't feel good about that."
While the Bulldogs have beaten the past two South champions, including 2001 champion Lake Forest, already this season, Pavia cautioned his team against counting on a championship with unbeaten Milford still ahead on Feb. 12.
"We've talked about winning the Henlopen Conference, not just the Southern Division," said Pavia. "I don't want that to be construed as boastful, cocky or arrogant, but if you want to shoot for the stars, you have to shoot for the stars. We'll celebrate over this for a brief moment and talk about our successes and our goals and our dreams for our lives and how this parallels that.
"The South is as strong as it's been in I don't know how many years. Milford is as solid as a rock. They could blow us out if we have a bad day and even if we have a good day, I'm not sure what will happen. I think we've put ourselves in a position to win it. Milford is the next big step for us but we can't look past anyone. We can't think this is the world championships and it's over."
160 -- Scott Cahall, S, maj. dec. Ben Ralph, 11-3; (4-0 Smyrna)
171 -- Ricky Ralph, L, dec. Mike Zulkowski, 4-1; (4-3 Smyrna)
189 -- Kiante Walker, L, pinned Thomas Wright, :52; (9-4 Laurel)
215 -- Josh Cherriman, S, pinned Eston Ennis, 3:33; (10-9 Smyrna)
Hwt. -- Zach Slatcher, L, dec. Hartnett, 10-4; (12-10 Laurel)
103 -- Marc Saylor, L, dec. Broomall, 12-6; (15-10 Laurel)
112 -- Robinson, S, dec. Jared Allen, 3-2; (15-13 Laurel)
119 -- Crain, S, maj. dec. Bobby Otwell, 14-2; (17-15 Smyrna)
125 -- Will Saylor, L, dec. Ribolla, 6-3; (18-17 Laurel)
130 -- Proud, S, dec. Scott Hearn, 7-2; (20-18 Smyrna)
135 -- Brian Fletcher, S, dec. Horsey, 12-7; (23-18 Smyrna)
140 -- Jameik Matthews, L, dec. Revel, 6-3; (23-21 Smyrna)
145 -- Patrick Blissard, S, maj. dec. Jeff Downes, 20-8; (27-21 Smyrna)
152 -- Jason Ward, L, pinned Brandon Carney, 2:27. (27-27)
Laurel head coach Tom Pavia on Jason Ward's pin:
"He's got something you can't coach, which is an uncanny sense of where is on the mat with his hips. He has some funky moves that you don't teach in the room where he rolls hips real quick and drives them into the guy and gets him off-balance and then rips his arm over his head and puts the guy on his back. He could be pinned or doing the pinning. He's a pinner. He has a very, very unemotional look to his face, but he was pretty expressive last night. I said (as Ward went onto the mat), 'If you pin we tie. Go out there and wrestle as hard as can for six minutes and do the best you can'."
Pavia on his team's future:
"At the beginning of the year I said we had a pretty solid lineup and then we went to the Milford tournament and I said, 'Oh my gosh, look at all of these teams.' The top teams in the South are Lake Forest, Smyrna, Milford and us. There's no front-runner. I would have picked and still do pick Smyrna as having the best lineup in the South. We were fortunate to have one more pin than Smyrna did. We could just as easily have come into school today say, 'we were that close ...' The next level is to compete with every team we wrestle and put ourselves in position to win the South in February. We'll have our plate full once again. That's what makes it so sweet. You can't take a day off. You have to be focused the whole way through. We talk a lot about vision, and our vision is to win the Southern Division, challenge to win the Henlopen, and become dual meet state champions."
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