As of this week, I will have been the sports editor at The Oldham Era for a year. One of my first assignments when I got here in 2015 was to cover the Kentucky state wrestling tournament. Oldham County has three high schools with pretty strong wrestling programs, and last year offered the first state champion wrestler in the county in several years.
This season was different with two schools offering multiple state champion hopefuls, so this weekend at the state tournament in Lexington was going to offer plenty of story lines.
The best part about the 2016 tournament was that while the story lines were there, two of them weren’t expected.
Here’s three of them:
1. A dream fulfilled
Oldham County High School has two twins, Max and Brady Emerson, who have wrestled for 12 years. Their father, Steve, was an assistant wrestling coach at Oldham County Middle School when Max and Brady were in the first grade. He brought the boys to practices with him as they would do their own thing on the corners of the mat. Max and Brady fell in love with the sport from there and what transpired was a long, successful wrestling career.
Both twins were expected to make it to the finals, and they did.
Brady, in the 152-pound weight class, lost his match by one point to the defending state champion.
Max, in 182, won his match and finished a senior season as an undefeated champion.
This next part is why I love being a sportswriter.
You see, Max is very emotional. He has a knowledge and love for this sport unlike anyone I’ve covered. That was made clear to me this week in talking with Max, his coach and his father. I sat in his father’s office last week talking about the last 12 years and how both sons could win a title and how it will all end Saturday.
Max watched the last three seconds tick off the scoreboard as his emotions took over. After Max stepped off the very top of the podium as a champion, I followed him as he walked to the stands, waved for his parents to come down and watched the embrace.
A dream 12 years in the making was finished.
Max turned around a few seconds later for his interview. The entire time, tears flowing from his eyes as he described his feelings and detailing every methodical move he made to secure a title.
“I’ve never cried from happiness like this before,” he said.
2. Another championship with a different story.
North Oldham High School has been around for 12 years and yet to crown a state wrestling champion.
This year they had a reasonable expectation to crown two of them — Landin Jones in the heavyweight division and Collin Portman in the 220-pound weight class. (More on Portman later).
Neither won a title (Jones was runner-up). Instead it was the lightweight kid with the upset of the tournament.
Dallas Ochsenbein won the 120-pound championship by beating Union County’s Saul Ervin, who won the 106-pound title last year. Every year since 2007, a member of the Ervin family had won a state title.
“When I heard there wasn’t even a state champion that made me really want to be the first. That made me push myself extra today.”
Can’t make this stuff up.
3. This story ends in defeat.
Collin Portman cruised through the season undefeated and pinned every opponent willing to step on the mat against him.
He was well on his way to pin out the tournament and win a state championship. Ask anyone who saw him wrestle and that was the consensus. He was just better and hadn’t met anyone that was even close to challenging him.
Sitting in his school cafeteria last week before state, I asked he and his coach about that. What happens if someone challenges him?
“He hasn’t wrestled all the way across for six minutes. That’s the only thing that concerns me,” his coach Tony Zeppa told me.
Portman lost in the championship semifinals to the eventual state champion. He had to wrestle six minutes across and was physically worn. I had never seen someone struggle to find the energy to stand up and walk like I had when watching him after the match.
After this, the best he could do was wrestle for third place.
In the consolation round, Portman heard a pop in his foot and went down. Trainers wrapped it up and he attempted to finish the match.
Then Portman, the man who pinned 36 opponents, was pinned.
Now the best he can finish is fifth.
By that point, he could barely put pressure on his foot, so he had to forfeit his final match of his career, so he finished the tournament sixth.
I’m expecting a devastated young man at this point. Here’s a guy who pinned literally everyone for months. And in one afternoon he experienced extreme exhaustion, a loss by pin and a forfeit.
Then he told me this:
“I’m happy it ended how it did. The person who worked hardest won and they deserved it. I’m happy for him. It’s not my place to wish I won and he didn’t because he worked harder and beat me. It’s his and I’m happy for him.”
Talk about bowing out gracefully…
So there you have it. A story of rewarded dedication, a story of an upset for history and a story of humble defeat. At the end of the day, it didn’t matter if we were at a tournament for 14 hours. Those stories made it all worth it.
And that was all from one wrestling event.
Just think, basketball postseason starts this week.