Three Chargers punch tickets to states after redemption-filled regional tourney

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CAMERON — Northwood 220-pounder Jake Dunning weathered a brutal onslaught by his Orange High School nemesis Elijah Acosta to drive him to his back in the semifinal bout at the 2022 NCHSAA 3A Mideast Wrestling Regionals, hosted by Union Pines.

His 5-2 victory was an electrifying moment of redemption.

But like the old lead-in to the ABC Wide World of Sports, Dunning experienced both the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat on Saturday. He ran into a human buzz saw named Landon Sargent of Cape Fear in the championship finals, settling for 2nd place and a lesson learned.

Dunning is one of three Northwood grapplers advancing to the state championship tournament this weekend, helping the Chargers secure 6th place among the 26 teams represented at regionals. Andrew Kimbrel at 138 pounds and Ethan Kuball at 170 pounds also punched their tickets to the state tournament with 4th-place finishes.

“To be honest, I always thought I’d have a few guys going (to states) because of their work ethic. I figured it would pay off,” said first-year Northwood Head Coach Joe Harris.

If there was one disappointing turn of events it was 170-pound junior Cliff Davis not repeating as a state qualifier.

“I was very surprised. I know his last match was tough” against Cedar Ridge opponent Kaden Tatro, Harris said. Davis dropped a 7-0 decision in the “blood round” in which wrestlers in the consolation bracket either qualify for states or fall one match short.

Dunning, a stout grappler himself, realized early in the finals the muscular Sargent was going to be a handful.

“Oh, yeah, he was (strong),” Dunning said. “That’s definitely the best guy I’ve ever faced. That was the first time I got pinned since early last season. It was a wake-up call, but I made it to states, which was my season goal, and I did that taking second at regionals, and I got myself a silver medal, and I beat the Orange kid who beat me three times this season.”

“That last boy he wrestled was big,” Harris said. “He was strong. He knew what he was doing. To see him get pinned was unlikely. … Jake has areas he needs to work on a little bit.”

After a brief scramble in the first period, Sargent used a pass-by for an early takedown. He then turned Dunning to his back with an underhook and reverse half, stepping over to sink a half nelson and body press for the fall, crushing Northwood’s last hope for a regional champion.

In the semifinals against Acosta, Dunning gave up a second period escape on a stand-up to fall behind, 1-0, but as they jostled from their knees and their bodies clashed, Dunning reached back, slipped his arm around Acosta’s head and hipped into him for a takedown and near fall for a 4-1 lead.

Acosta escaped to close out the second period, and took the top position to start the third period. He worked feverishly on a near wrist, far arm post in an attempt to force Dunning to his back, and briefly flirted with a cradle. Dunning bent and grimaced, got warned for stalling but did not go over, finally working his way free for the 5-2 final score and clinching a spot in states.

“I was a pretty big celebrator last year and I got in quite a bit of trouble with my coach for that so I hadn’t been doing much celebrating this year,” Dunning said. “But I think that was definitely something to celebrate, so … I came off the mat screaming and flexing. Definitely the best moment for me in wrestling so far, beating the rival and making it to states.”

Although he’s getting an opportunity in his debut season to be in the corner at the state tournament, a privilege that takes some coaches years to accomplish, if ever, Harris was humble in success.

“It’s very special. Like I said before, it comes from coaches in the past that came through as well,” Harris said. “It’s not just me this one year.”

Kuball finished the tournament at 3-2, earning two pins and a major decision before falling in the fight for 3rd place to Gatlan Thompson of Cape Fear, 8-2. After a scoreless first period, Thompson hit a standup escape followed by a nifty single-leg sweep for a takedown. Kuball escaped, but Thompson nailed a single leg/balance check to go up 5-1. Thompson got an escape and double-leg takedown in the third period, which closed out after Kuball hit a switch and broke free for an escape.

“I think he did good,” Harris said. “That kid he wrestled was big. He had a tough match” — surprisingly giving up three takedowns, Harris said.

“He’s usually good on his feet. I think that guy was just a little quicker. When he got in on the shot he didn’t let go,” he said. “So we’re going to work with him this week on getting a little quicker on his feet, and sprawl back faster.

“Coming into this season I had high hopes for Ethan making it to states,” Harris continued. “I’m not really surprised that he made it because he’s a great wrestler, and because of the work he puts in.”

Last year at this time, Kuball was wrestling in the state tournament in Wisconsin.

Middle school states, that is. He’s just a freshman this year.

“I think I did pretty good,” Kuball said. “Out of the best 16 wrestlers in the region, I took 4th. That’s pretty good, right? I am in a tough weight class. There’s a lot of juniors and seniors at 160.”

As Yogi Berra once famously said, it was déjà vu all over again for Kimbrel in the consolation finals, getting pinned by Cameron Small of Southern Nash, who also decked him in the quarterfinals.

Small towered over Kimbrel, and had a wingspan that would make a condor jealous. But Kimbrel managed to hit a slide-by takedown in the first period for an early 2-0 lead. Small used his length to reach back and pop out on top for the reversal, sending the bout into the second period deadlocked at 2-2.

They started the second period in the neutral position, and Small hit a spin-behind takedown, wrapped Kimbrel up in a cradle and trapped a leg for extra measure to get the pin.

“Andrew did really good. He got caught in a cradle,” Harris said. “I expected him to go to states. In practice he’s always pushing himself and giving 100% so I figured he would make it.

“I knew he was good on top, and I was trying to get out,” Kimbrel said. “The whistle blew and I knew previously he had done that exact same cradle on me so I was trying to avoid that. In the second period he got the takedown and that same stinking cradle.

“At the end of the day, I can’t complain. The team went to states this year, I went to states. It was a pretty awesome season and a lot of our guys did pretty well today, so I’m proud of our guys,” he added, finishing the tournament at 4-2. “I’m proud of myself. I did the best I could do yesterday and today.”


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