Chargers storm back from 39-3 deficit but fall just short in 1st round match vs. Panthers

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HILLSBOROUGH — Northwood suffered through a four-year drought since its last appearance in the NCHSAA team wrestling duals in 2017.

But it took nemesis Orange High School just one night to crush the Chargers’ dreams of advancing past the first round of the tournament.

Monday’s 45-27 loss might have gone according to expectations, with No. 15 seed Northwood, a team that nearly didn’t have a season due to the lack of a coach, taking on perennial powerhouse Orange, the No. 2 seed in the 3A East.

But this gritty Chargers squad did everything but hang its head. Some had epiphanies about their talents. Others drew motivation from the sting of losing and unfulfilled dreams.

As a team, they made a strong statement that it will be back here next year, even better, with a fire in its belly and ice in its veins. At least that was the overwhelming mood stemming from the post-match huddle.

“I do think that (qualifying for state duals) is definitely a leg up on what we’ve done in the past,” 170-pounder Cliff Davis said after the loss. “We’ve had, I would say, even better athletes in the past few years and they still haven’t accomplished what we have as a team. It’s just miraculous that the team we pulled together this year worked as hard as they did, and I’m proud of everything they’ve done.”

Davis said some Northwood wrestlers might not have been mentally prepared for this stage, but vowed the team would use the experience to come back even better next year.

The Chargers were at an immediate disadvantage, giving up 12 forfeit points. They haven’t had anyone at 106 pounds all year, and it’s been here today, gone tomorrow at 285 pounds. But in matches wrestled, the teams split 6-6 in wins, with Orange holding a much closer 33-27 points edge. The difference was bonus points. Orange racked up five falls and one decision to three pins and three decisions for the Chargers. Orange also had a 12-5 advantage in takedowns.

Northwood first-year Head Coach Joe Harris saw plenty to be excited about after his team fell behind 39-3, but refused to surrender.

“We had a five-win streak, and three of them were pins” while rolling up 24 unanswered points, Harris said. “These guys, whenever they are down, they have the heart in them, and they have the drive and the will to where they want to push on and keep fighting because they know they’re good, and they know they can win.”

“It’s just like the mentality of a warrior,” Davis said of the mood on the bench when the score was spinning out of control. “Everybody’s got to come together, and you’ve got to be self-motivated. You’re willing to fight a battle if you have to, and push through what you’ve got to do.”

Harris acknowledged a sense of pride in guiding the Chargers back into the playoffs. He was young and untested, a late hire for the job and initially the only coach in the mat room.

“They couldn’t find a coach,” said Harris, a Northwood alumnus. “I know when I was wrestling I loved it, and I didn’t want them, especially the seniors, to go without a year of wrestling, so I told them I would take the position.

“Going in, I was a little nervous with them, but these guys listen, and they’re willing to work hard,” he said. When former Northwood wrestler Josue Pena came on board as an assistant coach, the situation became more manageable.

Harris is turning his attention now to getting his wrestlers ready for the Feb. 11 regional qualifier for the state individual championship tournament.

“From up to this point they were a team, but now it’s their time,” Harris said. “I want it for them, but they’ve got to want it for themselves.”

During Monday’s match, Orange raced to a 27-0 lead on the strength of the two forfeits, a pair of pins and a decision. Northwood didn’t get on the board until the 120-pound match when Coltrane Northington squeaked out a 6-5 win over the Panthers’ Braden Crawford. Northington scored the initial takedown in the first period, and got a reversal in the second. Crawford had an escape in the second period and reversed Northington in the third to take a 5-4 lead, but Northington got the final reversal to secure the win.

After giving up pins at 126 and 132, the Chargers went on a tear.

Andrew Kimbrel outscored the Panthers’ Ben Musser, 6-3, at 138 pounds. After giving up a first-period takedown, Kimbrel earned a pair of reversals to go up 4-2 after two periods. Musser escaped in the third and hit a deep leg shot, but Kimbrel stuffed the move, hit a blistering cross-face and spun behind for a takedown to seal the win.

Northwood 145-pounder Ron Walker decked Avery Clark in the second period in a wild match. Walker fell behind 2-0 when Clark got a buzzer-beating takedown to culminate a lengthy funk fest scramble. But in the second period, Walker trapped a leg and bulled Clark to his back for the fall.

“I tried my best, I put him in the world-famous neck crank and I pinned him. I was in disbelief,” said Walker, who had only used the move one other time in a match, but had been practicing it the past two weeks. “I noticed in other matches Orange doesn’t really put their head up, but when they do, it’s not with strength. So I put it in there and I was like, ‘Oh, my God, I’m going to do it.’”

When he started the season he wasn’t expecting to make varsity, and didn’t think he was at a level with other wrestlers in the mat room. Decking an Orange wrestler in the state playoffs was a moment of self-awareness.

“I just realized, I’m the best wrestler here,” Walker said. The pin “gives me both momentum and motivation.”

At 152 pounds, the Chargers’ Ian Morrison hit a roll and reversed Sam Crawford after giving up the initial takedown, wrapped up a far-side cradle and clamped the Orange grappler in the first period.

At 160 pounds, Northwood’s Ethan Kuball gave up a pair of takedowns to Andre Hill and trailed 4-2 after hipping into the Orange wrestler and stepping over for a reversal. Kuball chose neutral to start the third period, converted a single-leg to a double-leg takedown and slapped on a near-side cradle for three back points and a solid 7-4 decision.

Davis, a returning state qualifier, capped the winning streak for Northwood, showing the lights to Nate Hecht in their 170-pound tilt.

“I wrestled the guy before just once. … I won that by a hair” while he was suffering from an arm injury, Davis said. “This match I had to really readjust defensively. I knew what he was going to do. He does the same stuff. The second period I just felt him get weaker on the one side, so I cranked on the armbar. I just went for it.”

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