Bradley wrestling coach Ben Smith knew heading into the finals of the Region 4 wrestling tournament the going would be tough against defending champion Cleveland.
The Bears, looking for their first region crown since 2011 and holding a 166.5-159 lead over defending champion Cleveland, sent five wrestlers into the championship. The Blue Raiders held a three-wrestler advantage with eight. The extra numbers eventually paid off for Cleveland with a 196-178.5 win over the Bears to claim a second consecutive Region 4 title.
"We had to chase Bradley because they scored a bunch of points in the consolation. But our guys figured out a way to finish on top, and I'm proud of them," said Cleveland Coach Jake Yost. "I thought Bradley did a good job. They qualified 13, everybody they entered in the tournament. I don't see how you could be upset with that. They should be proud; I think they did a good job. Walker Valley qualified a bunch of guys too. I think our region will do well at the state tournament."
The champion Blue Raiders will send 11 wrestlers to the state tournament, including nine region champions.
"I thought we had a gutty performance today. Our guys went seven for nine in the finals. We qualified 11 out of 13 wrestlers. We had one fourth place, one third place, two second place and seven champs," said Yost. "The two guys who didn't qualify just didn't have the experience, but the guys who did qualify we feel like every single one of them can score points at the state tournament. I feel good about it."
The Bears will send all 13 wrestlers Smith brought to Saturday's tournament to Franklin including a pair of region title holders.
"Thirteen for 13," he said through a smile. "There are kids I knew if we could just get them to the tournament we are going to win some matches. Now I've got 13 chances to win some matches. I love that. I'm extremely happy with 13. After the seeds came out, I thought we might get 10 to 12 in."
The Mustangs bested last year's number of state champion participants by three, matching the number the region champion Raiders will have in Franklin with 11.
"This is the most we have ever taken," said Walker Valley Coach Al Morris, who qualified eight Mustangs in 2013. "This means a lot to the program. It's just another step in our development although we still have a long way to go to be where we feel we need to be as a program."
After missing a chance to open some space against the Blue Raiders in the 106-pound final, the Bears closed the gap with a pin by Toribio Navarro at 113 in the first of two head-to-head matches. Knox Fuller did his part with another Bradley pin at 120.
"The fact we had the lead [going into the finals] is just kind of icing on the top for us. We had the lead for a little bit, and that's nice," Smith acknowledged. "When you're in the rebuilding phase, you talk about small victories. I felt like we had a bit of a small victory having the lead. I didn't even start keeping score until I realized Walker Valley had seven in the finals, and we had five."
The Blue Raiders made it a seven and a half-point (178.5-171) match when Chris DeBien won with the second Cleveland-Bradley matchup with a pin at 126. The Raiders then took a 181-178.5 lead to virtually lock up the championship with a pin by Austin Stevison at 132 and a decision at 138.
With his win, Stevison became only the second Blue Raiders four-time region champion. Tommy Lennon, who graduated from Cleveland in 1979, was the first.
The Mustangs, who finished in third place with 171 points, lost a chance to gain ground with a loss at 145. Walker Valley's Ryan Hager battled Cleveland's Aaron Oliver in the 152-pound championship match with Oliver winning the decision. Lawrence Cotton helped the Mustangs out with a major decision at 160.
Soddy-Daisy (137.5) and Ooltewah (44) rounded out the top five with 137.5. East Hamilton finished fifth (42), Rhea County seventh (21) and McMinn County eighth (0).
In the 170-pound championship match, Cleveland's Josh Hamilton added to the Raiders' points total with a pin at 170.
In a head-to-head matchup between the Mustangs and Bears at 182, Walker Valley senior Billy Raulston earned a 7-2 decision against Brett Brown. At 195, Cleveland's Ethan West won the first head-to-head bout between the Mustangs and Raiders with a major decision over Ric Kennett.
"The teams at the top of our region have been at the top of the state rankings all year long, and to be in that mix is a good thing for our team. To come out with four region champs is a good thing as well," Morris said of Walker Valley's performance. "Lawrence Cotton was a No. 2-seed and came in and beat the No. 1-seed. I always love those kinds of wins. Drake Haney, Billy Raulston, Zach Miller, all those guys have been working hard and this is what they are working for.
"The good thing is we've got 11 guys that are going to get to wrestle next week in Franklin. We're going to keep getting them ready. We've got some good guys [going to the tournament]. We actually have some guys I feel like can make some noise at the state tournament, so we will just have to see. Anything can happen there."
Walker Valley's 285-pounder Zach Miller closed out the tournament for the Mustangs with a 3-1 decision over John Gaither.
"This performance proves our 11 guys can score points, just as many as their [Bradley's] 13. We're going to have to wrestle hard, but our kids did a good job today. We're real proud of them. They went seven for nine in the finals and won some matches where by seeding criteria we maybe weren't the favorite. We were even in the other two matches to win it," said Yost. "I feel like we did a really good job today."
Smith credited an eight for eight run in the consolation semifinals that put the Bears in a position to finish second in the finals where he said he got what he was looking for from his wrestlers.
"McElhaney wrestled in our eyes a legitimate No. 1 in Drake Haney. I felt like if we went down big early, we'd have a hard time coming back. We put him on his back a little too late," he said. "But the beautiful thing about that is we've still got another week. This matters, but it's not what we're after, and I know it's not what Ryan is after."
Cleveland's Chris DeBien was named Outstanding Wrestler by the coaches. Best match went to the 106-pound bout between Walker Valley's Drake Haney and Bradley Central's Ryan McElhaney.
106 — Drake Haney (WV) dec. Ryan McElhaney (BC), 9-6; 113 — Torribio Navarro (BC) pinned Tristan Blansit (C), 5:53; 120 — Knox Fuller (BC) pinned Matt Meeks (EH), 1:15; 126 — Christopher DeBien pinned Hunter Parker (BC), 1:45; 132 — Austin Stevison (C) pinned Emory Holcomb (SD), 5:23; 138 — Ezra Taylor (C) dec. Tucker Russo (SD), 4-3; 145 — Logan Richardson (SD) pinned Tyrus Hamrick (WV), 1:21; 152 — Aaron Oliver (C) dec. Ryan Hager (WV), 7-1; 160 — Lawrence Cotton (WV) major dec. Garrett Alexander (SD), 11-3; 170 — Josh Hamilton (C) pinned Tyler Hixson (SD), 1:51; 182 — Billy Raulston (WV) dec. Brett Brown (BC), 7-2; 195 — Ethan West (C) major dec. Ric Kennett (WV), 10-1; 220 — Koran Kennedy (C) win by forfeit; 285 — Zach Miller (WV) dec. John Gaither (C), 3-1.