By Jeff Keeling
It finished on a down note, but the Science Hill wrestling team’s trip to the state duals championship tournament left the young squad with plenty to hang its hat on. Two Friday wins put Science Hill in the winners’ bracket semifinal, while a loss to eventual champion Bradley Central and a nail-biter of a defeat at the hands of rival Tennessee High Saturday prevented a chance at third place.
The Toppers started their unexpected run to the winners’ bracket semifinals of the 16-team, double-elimination tournament by defeating Murfreesboro Blackman 39-33. Senior 220-pounder Hunter Bagley clinched the match with a first-round pin over Sam Luker that gave Science Hill a 39-27 lead with one match remaining.
The team turned around and wrestled four hours later against a heavily favored Beech Senior squad. “They were probably predicted as a top four team,” head coach Jimmy Miller said of Beech.
That didn’t faze the Toppers, who were both fit and fearless, Miller said. He and assistant Caleb Myers had, “put the pedal down” during the week’s practice sessions. Those sessions included “multiple grind matches” designed to produce mental toughness and endurance.
“We had better lungs than we’d had in a long time, and our kids could deal with adversity,” Miller said.
When it came time to wrestle Beech, the coaches were able to make some strategic moves with matchups, and the wrestlers did the rest.
“Our kids were going out there with the mindset of doing the best they could do,” Miller said of the Beech match. “They didn’t know the rankings of those kids, they just wrestled.
“It’s contagious. Freshman and sophomores going out there and winning matches,” he said of the team that has nine sophomores and a freshman on varsity.
This time, when Bagley entered the circle to face Beech’s Peyton Reinert, the Toppers led, 30-24, with two matches to follow Bagley’s. They also had four six-point decisions to Beech’s two, meaning they would win a tiebreaker, and that meant even a three-point decision by Bagley would clinch the match.
Reinert, a senior, had come into the tournament 41-8. Bagley, among the favorites to win the state tournament, was 40-2. He again clinched for the Toppers, prevailing 8-2.
While veteran wrestlers like Bagley and junior 120-pounder Cooper Williams took care of business with pins, Miller said some unheralded younger wrestlers who came through in the Beech match most impressively, even though they lost decisions.
Freshman Alex Hise, replacing injured Jimmy Kalogeros at 160, and sophomore Dorian Butler (113) “wrestled off their backs” but avoided pins or technical falls against heavily favored opponents. Instead of losing six points, they hung on to give up four-point major decisions, where a pin in either match would have meant six points and a Topper loss.
Saturday, Bagley was the only Topper to defeat a Bradley Central wrestler on the mat. He scored a major decision over Devin Gibson, 13-1, to give Science Hill a 4-0 lead after the first match. Bradley then ripped off a pin, a major decision, a pin, a technical fall, a decision and three straight pins to take an insurmountable 42-4 lead with five matches remaining. Bradley Central forfeited the last five matches for the not-as-close-as-it-seemed final tally of 42-34, then went on to defeat Soddy-Daisy 52-21 in the championship match.
Facing Tennessee High for the third time in 11 days (they had split the first two matches), Science Hill was forced to change some of its game plan due to the coin flip. Heavyweight Austin Taylor, the team’s other senior along with Bagley, needed a win in the second-to-last match, but was pinned late trying to reverse Kenneth Haggerman while down 1-0 and the Toppers lost 34-31.
The regional individual championships are this weekend, with state Feb. 19-20. For his part, Miller considers Science Hill’s rebuilding program ahead of schedule. The team returns 12 starters next year. “There’s a lot of affirmation in what we saw this weekend.”