’94 wrestling made history vs. Riverside
Published 3:37 pm Tuesday, January 23, 2018
Davie’s wrestling team has three old state championships in the new trophy case, and the prospect of another deep playoff run looms on the horizon.
Although the 2017-18 War Eagles have suffered key losses to injury and may have to operate without heavyweight Andy Flores (just the latest victim to injury) in the state duals, coaches Buddy Lowery, Timmy Allen, Mark McKnight and Perry Long believe an appearance in the state final – it would be Feb. 3 at Davie – is quite possible.
After being a member of the Western North Carolina Activities Association from 1956-77, Davie joined the North Carolina High School Athletic Association in 1977.
The War Eagles flirted with NCHSAA championships in 1979, when the girls basketball team finished second in the state, and 1983, when the boys golf team finished second. Then Lowery’s wrestlers flirted with state titles in 1987, 1988 and 1989, finishing as state runner-up each time. The inception of the state duals was 1990, and the 1993-94 Davie wrestlers did something that had never been done – they strutted off with the state duals championship hardware by knocking off Durham Riverside in a packed-to-capacity Davie gym. Lowery finally had his crowning achievement in his 18th year as coach.
But that is how the confident War Eagles envisioned the 1992-93 season ending. The year before the history-making triumph over Riverside, Davie almost, almost, almost beat Cary, losing 26-22 in controversial fashion.
The beginning of the match at Cary unfolded perfectly. The War Eagles roared to 19-0 and 22-3 leads over the first eight weight classes by getting decision victories from Chris Marello, Josh Whitley, Scotty Spry, Matt Wilson, Jon Ward, Matt Sain and Mark Mason.
“We win a couple more and it’s all over with,” Mason said.
“I didn’t think there was any way they could catch us,” assistant coach Matt Wilson said.
But the War Eagles came up just short in the most painful way possible. In the second-to-last match at 189, Davie’s Brad Groce was pitted against Brian Werley. Groce scored clutch points to take his first lead with :33 remaining. He was clinging to a 5-4 lead as the seconds ticked away. A Groce win would have given Davie an insurmountable 25-17 lead.
“It was weight off my shoulders,” Davie’s undersized heavyweight, sophomore Kevin Caudle, said of Groce’s late lead. “I was happy. I thought we were going to win.”
But the War Eagles had their hearts ripped out by a whistle at :07. Groce was called for stalling for the third time, the two-point penalty giving Werley a 6-5 win. Four of Werley’s points came from stalling calls.
“My heart dropped to my feet,” Caudle said.
The War Eagles empathized with Groce and Caudle and fumed at the official. After Werley’s answered prayer pulled Cary within 22-20, Elliott Smith (27-6) took on Caudle, who was a true 189-pounder.
Smith pinned Caudle. The big dream had died.
“I remember getting stomped on, trampled on,” Caudle said. “All those people from Cary came out at once.”
“I felt we got cheated,” Michael Hunter said. “I remember looking at Josh Whitley and we were both in tears.”
“I felt like we got cheated,” Justin Carter said.
“We got jipped,” Spry said.
“The first thing I feel is that we got cheated,” coach Wilson said.
“You could hear a pin drop (on the bus ride home),” Caudle said. “People were just crying.”
“I don’t think you can get over something like that,” Lowery said. “I’ve been second four times. Three of the times we were beaten by Cary. That’s what really (ticks) you off.”
Two weeks later in the state individual tournament, Davie finished second – again narrowly missing its first state title.
Even though there were zero seniors on the 1993-94 team, Lowery and the War Eagles would achieve vindication.
They opened the season with a 66-7 romp over West Iredell. Then they won the 13th-annual King of the Mat at North Davidson for the 11th consecutive year, scoring 188.5 points to runner-up East Rowan’s 135.5. Sain was awarded for most pins in the shortest amount of time. Spry (125), Sain (140), Mason (152) and Neil Cornatzer (160) won their respective weight classes.
After blasting Forbush 59-9, the War Eagles went 5-0 in the Davie Duals, winning by 53, 51, 34, 42 and 24 points.
“They aren’t scared of anybody,” Lowery said. “Sometimes I wonder if they’re a little too overconfident. But they don’t like to get beat.”
In a 60-point win over Starmount, Chris Driver (112) recorded a pin in 21 seconds, Spry (119) in 16 seconds and Justin Jenne (125) in 10 seconds.
In the nine-team Statesville Invitational, Davie’s 194.5 points outdistanced second-place East Davidson by 40.5. Davie champions included Spry (119), McKnight (112), Jenne (125), Carter (140) and Hunter (145).
Davie competed in the stacked WRAL tournament at Athens Drive in Raleigh, finishing fourth out of nine teams. The War Eagles carried heavy hearts while coping with the tragic loss of teammate Jeremy Cook, who died in a car wreck. They were outscored by Jesuit (Louisiana), Riverside and Orange.
“(Jesuit, a school in New Orleans) has 120 wrestlers,” Lowery said. “There aren’t but 60 schools in all of Louisiana that wrestle.”
Spry triumphed over his 119 competition and was named the tournament’s most valuable wrestler. Adam Connor (103) and McKnight (112) placed second.
Davie treated Central Piedmont Conference rivals like little brothers, winning 64-6 over North Davidson, 72-6 over West Forsyth, 67-5 over Mt. Tabor, 55-18 over South Rowan, 62-12 over Reynolds and 68-6 over South Stokes.
“It’s hard to sit there sometimes when you know what’s going to happen,” Lowery said.
After going 6-0 in the CPC, Davie closed the regular season with a spotless 16-0 record. Now it was time to gear up for the state duals.
“We’re loose as a goose,” Lowery said. “When they step on the mat, you’ve got some serious people. It’s a good group, and the best thing is that none of them are seniors.”
There would be no regrets this time. No “almosts,” “what-ifs?” or disappointment after so many close calls.
After knocking out South Rowan in the semifinals, the War Eagles made a fashion statement – shaving their heads.
“There was a 32-gallon trash can full of hair,” Lowery said. “There were some ugly heads. They did it to be different. Dang, they are different. They’re crazy. I guess this is what a wrestler should look like.”
On that February Saturday night, Davie was host of an epic showdown: the 19-0 War Eagles against the 16-0 Riverside Pirates. Both were ranked 1-2 all season by Bob Mauldin of Mat News. Ronnie Smith of R&J Sports was certain this was the year, walking into the gym and handing over a box of championship T-shirts before the match. A standing-room-only crowd was charged up for the 7:30 p.m. match.
Two hours later, the curse had been lifted. Second-ranked Davie beat top-ranked Riverside 31-28, forfeiting out after building a 31-16 lead.
“It just had to be done,” Hunter said. “It had to come from the heart.”
McKnight (112) and Spry (119) rolled up pins to push Davie to a 12-3 lead. The Pirates rallied back to 12-10, but Davie wouldn’t relinquish the lead. Sain (7-1 decision at 135), Carter (14-6 major decision at 140) and Hunter (10-5 decision at 145) made sure of that.
“I felt if we had won at 145, we still had a chance,” Riverside coach Jim Key said. “I felt good about our chances at 189 and heavyweight.”
In a swing match at 152, Mason and Joe Turner were knotted 4-4 through regulation. Mason put Davie on victory’s doorstep by getting a quick takedown in overtime and giving Davie a 25-10 lead with four weight classes left.
“He shot and I just tried to get behind him and score two points,” Mason said.
A Riverside pin at 160 cut Davie’s lead to 25-16. That set the stage for Davie’s extraordinary sophomore. Cornatzer bumped up to 171 and pinned Elijah Pruitt with 50 seconds left in the second period.
That clinched it. That exorcised the 1993 demons. Cornatzer wasn’t on the 1993 team that lost to Cary, “but I was there,” he said. “It wasn’t going to happen again. … I want to dedicate this to Jeremy (Cook).”
Lowery and Davie waited a long time for a victory to taste this good.
“It’s what you live for,” Mason said.
“We know what it’s like to be on the other side,” Lowery said. “We wanted to get on this side. It feels good.”
“I know coach Lowery and the people here have looked for a state title for a long time,” Key said. “They earned it tonight. They did an outstanding job.”
A week later, Davie added a Midwestern Regional title to its growing list of accomplishments. It was the sixth regional crown in eight years. Spry and Cornatzer were first-place performers as Davie scored 180 points to runner-up Anson County’s 112. Jenne, Sain and Hunter placed second. McKnight and Carter were third. Caudle was fourth as Davie qualified eight for the state tournament.
In the state tournament at the Greensboro Coliseum, banged-up Davie settled for third with 68 points, losing to Riverside (138) and Cary (77). Sain (ankle) and Caudle (knee) were sidelined with injuries and never took the mat.
It was still a memorable day as Spry, a junior at 119, captured his second state championship in as many tries. He pinned in the finals despite suffering a torn muscle in his chest in the quarterfinals. He went 35-0 for the season. He capped an incredible career the next year, winning the state for the third time.
“He’s going to win three in a row,” Lowery predicted in 1994. “He can go to 180 if he wants to. Nobody is going to stop him. You see some doing backflips. Scotty just shakes hands, pats the guy on the butt, gets his stuff and says, ‘Let’s go.’”
Cornatzer claimed second at 160 to finish his sophomore season 25-4. His 13-8 loss in the finals proved to be his final loss. Remarkably, he closed his three-year career with 79 straight wins and two state titles.
Hunter enjoyed a bronze medal by taking third at 145.
Riverside got a measure of revenge in Greensboro, but the missed steps and bad breaks from Davie’s past all went by the wayside in 1993-94.
At the end of the 20-0 ride, Lowery looked ahead. “With what we’ve got coming back and what’s coming, we’re going to be a lot better next year.”
Davie was certainly a juggernaut in 1994-95, going 29-1. It had another riveting match with Riverside, this time in Durham and this time with the Pirates escaping with a 33-31 win in the state dual finals. Davie came back to win the state individual title.
A decade later, Lowery was on top for the third time. Timmy Allen and Co. beat Cary, 41-23, at home in 2006 to win the state duals.
The War Eagles have been humming along since, and next week they will seek state title No. 4.