Believe It: Wrestlers capture first state title in 18 years

Published 1:52 pm Monday, February 5, 2024

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By Brian Pitts

Enterprise Record

In the 4-A state duals championship match on Saturday afternoon, the Davie wrestling team’s 22-6 lead had melted away and Wilmington Laney was down 28-22 with two weight classes left. The walls were closing in; the kill shot loomed as Laney had claimed four of five matches heading into 195.

In the midst of the wreckage stood Christian Boswell.

All the hopes and dreams of an entire season rested on the shoulders of a junior who saw one varsity match as a freshman, went 13-9 as a sophomore and was 10-7 halfway through the 2023-24 season.

But Boswell cast aside his underdog image like Clark Kent’s business suit, stunned a 30-win opponent and clinched a 31-25 victory that will forever be remembered as one of the most dramatic in school history.

Backed by an outrageous crowd that was roaring at ear-ringing levels, Boswell survived by a gnat’s eyelash, 10-8 in sudden-death overtime, and then it was complete bedlam inside the Greensboro Coliseum Fieldhouse.

The War Eagles won their first state title in 18 years and finished 23-1. For the powerhouse Buccaneers (14-1), it was their first loss since the 2023 state final.

“It’s unbelievable,” sophomore Andy Davis said. “Everybody did an amazing job winning the matches that needed to be won, and this is an amazing team to be a part of.”

“A state title is what we said the first day, and we just spoke it into existence,” first-year Davie coach and 2002 Davie graduate Josh Stanley said. “I wanted this job since I was 14 years old. Coach (Buddy) Lowery was my mentor and we wrestled in two of these when I was in school (1998-2002) and got second. It’s been 18 years since the school had one, so it means everything.”

The leadoff man at heavyweight was junior Ryder Strickland (31-6), a junior who gutted his way to a 3-2 decision over senior Michael Williams. The first period was scoreless. Williams got an escape to take a 1-0 lead, but Strickland countered with a two-point takedown. A Williams escape tied it at the end of the second. Strickland started the third on bottom and rode the crowd’s energy to an escape at :45, winning 3-2 to give Davie a 3-0 lead.

“I’ve got to get the energy going, so I loved (starting the match),” said the 269-pound Strickland, who was outweighed by 11 pounds. “After the first period, I had him tired out pretty good, so my plan was to get his feet moving. (On the takedown for a 2-1 lead), I had an under hook and I shot to a high crotch right at the edge of the mat and was able to keep him in bounds. (Before the winning escape), I looked over at the bench and all I saw was Josh and all my coaches screaming to get straight up. I got a huge adrenaline rush. It was awesome.”

“We all knew how big heavyweight was going to be, so we went all-in in that first match,” said a hoarse Stanley. “That’s when I lost my voice. We knew we had to have Ryder if we were going to win.”

At 113, Leighton Reavis’ performance was special because the freshman has been a backup all season. His 5-2 record before Saturday hardly suggested he was primed for a big effort, but that’s exactly what he delivered. He never flinched as he decisioned Jack Williams 14-7 to tie the score at 6-6 after Laney’s pin at 106.

“I just go to practice every day and try my best,” Reavis said. “This morning I found out I was going to start whenever Jerred (Alexander) texted me. I was freaking out. I didn’t think I was going to wrestle. It’s the best feeling ever. It’s amazing.”

“We put an unproven freshman in,” Stanley said. “I don’t know if he understood what I was saying because I said it and he just nodded. So I said it again. I said, ‘you are starting,’ and he just nodded again. I said: ‘He’s cold as ice. Let’s send him out there.’ He did not blink.”

Six of the first seven bouts belonged to the War Eagles. Freshman Aidan Szewczyk decisioned sophomore Kingston Neal at 120, the 8-2 margin representing his 22nd win in 25 tries.

“I thank God for the ability to be on the mat and to be able to perform at this level,” Szewczyk said.

With “LET’S-GO-DAV-IE!” and “WAR … EAGLES!” chants showering the Davie bench, sophomore Tiaj Thao (33-4) pinned at 126, junior Cayden Glass (32-2) decisioned 11-4 at 132 and Davis (33-3) decisioned 13-5 at 138 to stake Davie to the 22-6 lead.

Davis is a sophomore who had to tangle with a 39-5 senior. But it was glorious as Davis rolled to his 11th straight win.

“I was nervous at first, but whenever I get on the mat, they just kind of go away and I get in my mindset and wrestle,” Davis said.

“(Tyler Buonocore of Laney) is good, but Andy has a crazy gas tank,” Stanley said. “He’s the best chain wrestler we have, so it’s hard to stop him. He can chain multiple moves together; he flows like water. Some kids force one attack and then reset and force another. Andy feels it.”

Then: “We knew where they were strong, and we knew we had to get a jump on them,” Stanley said. “To hear that (chant from fans) when you’re nervous, it makes you feel like you’re at home. There’s nothing like it.”

It wasn’t all roses and daisies, though. The Buccaneers were undefeated for a reason.

Laney senior Isaiah Wysong (27-0) is a dominant force at 145 and he pinned Davie’s Brett Foster in the third, which ignited a 16-0 Laney run across four bouts.

“There’s a lot of tactical stuff there,” Stanley said. “If I bump Brett down, they would be able to bump up. I put Brett at 145 and that held their undefeated kid at 145. Brett got pinned but he still won the dual for us because he still held them accountable. They could’ve bumped three guys if we didn’t do that.”

Laney senior Tristan Cotto major decisioned at 152. Laney’s Marquise Kelly decisioned at 160. And Laney’s Mac Kopelman beat the red-hot Maddox Creason, 8-2, at 170.

It was now 22-22, but a portion of the credit has to go to Elliott Gould (152), Alexander (160) and Creason for staying off their backs.

The War Eagles’ momentum had dissipated, but seeing Hunter Testa walk up at 182 brought a huge adrenaline rush. He is the squad’s Superman. The 36-0 senior hammered down Holden Walker in the second period to provide the 28-22 lead. He’s 11th in career wins with a 146-7 record. What a legend.

“Don’t hurt the kid, don’t do anything crazy,” Stanley said when asked what he was thinking when it was Testa’s turn. “He wasn’t going to let anybody down.”

Then came the high drama at 195. This one felt like a do-or-die situation because Laney had a guy boasting a beastly record on deck. Brysen Godbey is a formidable senior at 220 who came in 36-5, but Laney senior Mason Blue was 37-1, and Blue would win a 5-0 decision in what turned out to be an inconsequential match.

The Boswell/Kaeden Smith match was a barnburner. Boswell led throughout the first two minutes, but the margin was only 4-3. Smith (30-13) had a 5-4 advantage at the end of the second. Boswell took Smith down, earned back points and took a 7-5 lead.

“I’ve been through all the emotions,” Szewczyk said. “I was sitting in the chair, thinking the worst and then the best.”

“It was nerve-racking,” Davis said. “He made it really nervous for all of us at the end, but he came up with the dub and we’re really proud of him. I was so excited I was just jumping around.”

“I was sitting next to (Boswell’s) dad,” said fan and former Davie wrestler Michael Shore. “He started out like he was gonna record it. I saw his hands shaking so bad, I just took his phone and said I got it. I know the feeling.”

Boswell had an 8-6 lead with time ticking away, but Smith came up with a tying reversal with just five seconds left in the third – and they headed to sudden-death overtime. A Boswell loss would have been excruciating.

Recovering from that reversal required some serious fortitude. Fourteen seconds into sudden death, Boswell brilliantly executed a takedown that resulted in a 10-8 decision and sealed the deal at 31-22. Smith carried momentum into OT, but Boswell had a fighting heart and a will to win.

“I went in knowing that I could win,” said the ever-improving Boswell, who is 25-10 with an eight-match winning streak. “There was a lot of pressure, but in overtime I knew I could get the two. It was exciting. It was crazy. It was fun. It’s amazing.”

“I love him,” Strickland said. “He’s awesome. I knew he could do it. He’s not always the most confident guy out there, but I saw it on his face that he was going to win that match when he walked out there, and I’m so happy that he did.”

“I’m super proud of him,” Testa said. “I love him to death. That’s my practice partner, so I’m really, really proud of him. We are super close and it’s really nice to see him get that victory.”

“Oh my gosh, we knew that was a swing match,” Stanley said. “Boz has been working hard all year trying to build his confidence, and it just exploded today thanks to the Davie crowd. You could just see his confidence explode. That was technically a match we thought we would lose. It was just heart. We thought we sealed it, but the kid scored with five seconds to go, so it was a roller coaster. We felt like we were in better shape, so we felt like overtime was in our favor – but you don’t ever know.”

Davie’s eight wins were five decisions, two pins and one major decision. Laney’s six wins were three decisions, two pins and one major.

The 2024 War Eagles joined the 1994 and 2006 teams as state dual team champions. When the issue was settled, jubilation and craziness ensued. Stanley tried three times to climb on a chair to pump his fist at the crowd.

“We’ve been waiting for this for 18 years,” Stanley said.

“We all dreamed about this since we were little kids,” Strickland said.

While the orange-and-black side celebrated one of the most iconic moments in Davie sports history, there was dejection on the other side.

“We got beat between the ears (at 195),” Laney coach Andre Adams said. “We took a bad shot; that wasn’t the shot you take (at that point) in the match. You live and learn and hopefully (Smith) won’t beat himself up too much. It shouldn’t have got to that point – all that on his shoulders – but we’ll be back.”

Notes: Testa was named MVP of the state championship. … The Buccaneers reached the state final for the third straight year. They won it in 2022 over Northwest Guilford. They were runner-up to NW Guilford in 2023. … The War Eagles, who closed the dual team season with 14 straight wins, will have a sky-high ceiling next year. Their lineup against Laney: three seniors, four juniors, four sophomores, three freshmen. … This was Davie’s ninth appearance in the state finals. It was bridesmaids in 1993, 1995, 1999, 2000, 2005 and 2008. … Davie County resident Maurice Atwood notched his 12th state duals title later in the day when 3-A Eastern Guilford romped past Union Pines. Eastern finished 48-0 and Atwood improved to 12-0 in state dual finals. … There are two weeks left in the season. The Midwest Regional is Feb. 9-10 at Ragsdale and the state tournament is Feb. 15-17 at the Greensboro Coliseum.