COMMERCE TWP. – Hartland’s 14th consecutive regional championship will go down as the most memorable of the bunch.
Junior Noah Lopez avenged a loss in Saturday’s district championship with a first-period fall over Walled Lake Central’s Nick Freeman at 103 pounds, capping a thrilling 34-25 victory to send the third-ranked Eagles back to Battle Creek and the team state wrestling finals.
“It feels awesome. It feels great,” said Lopez, who lost a 6-3 decision to Freeman their last time out. “No, I didn’t (expect to pin). I went out there just trying to win my match. It came up, so I just stuck him. I finished him.”
“In my mind, this was an upset,” Hartland coach Todd Cheney said, “They have an incredible team over there. We wrestled incredibly (well). This is my 23rd year coaching now, and, I’ve seen some special things. But tonight was one of the greatest days, and I kept telling them, ‘Today would be your greatest day. Today will be your greatest day.'”
Hartland (29-3) extended the state’s second-longest active streak for state finals appearances, but not without some tumultuous moments along the way.
After Hayden Culver’s win in overtime at 119 to open the dual, Hartland dropped the next three matches and trailed 13-3.
The Eagles won swing matches from Sage Castillo (140) and Logan Vish (145), but missed an opportunity to seize control and pick up valuable bonus points at 152 and 160, despite wins from Joey Livingston and Jacob Gorial, respectively, to go up 16-13.
Gorial won a major decision, 15-4, over Jacob Stitely, who lasted all of 48 seconds on the mat with the Hartland senior during Saturday’s districts.
“I was disappointed at 152 and 160 because I thought we would get bonus — big bonus,” Cheney said. “We got seven points out of those two matches and I really thought we could get 12. We were down, you could see.”
Then, at 171, things began to change.
Walled Lake Central’s George Noutai was disqualified for stalling against Lucas Laforge — who had eked out a 3-2 win over Noutai in Saturday’s district championship — giving the Eagles three huge bonus points and a 22-13 lead.
The Vikings (24-2) cut it to 22-16 with a decision at 189 before momentum shifted for good.
Just weeks after rejoining the wrestling team after a year off, Aaron Laird rallied from a 7-1 deficit in the third period by wearing down and very nearly pinning Walled Lake Central’s second-ranked Alex Sovel. Laird forced overtime, where he eventually lost 10-8, but it gave the Eagles a jolt of confidence.
“He might be the best 3-3 wrestler in the state,” Cheney said of Laird, a junior. “He hasn’t even practiced that much because his body isn’t in that great enough (wrestling) shape. We just told him ‘We just need you for a couple matches, a couple matches.’ … I really think the turning point was when Laird put Sovel on his back. I really would have loved to seen the ref hit it there. This place would have gone nuts.”
Senior Jake Economou bumped up to heavyweight and pinned Takale Ezell late in the third period to put Hartland on the brink, before Lopez sealed the deal at 103.
“I would have to say there were times where I did doubt, but I knew my team would pull through it,” Economou said. “I believe in these guys. I believe in everything they’ve done. This week has been a great week of practice and a lot of effort and it paid off tonight.”
Hartland downed Clarkston, 61-10, in its semifinal while Walled Lake Central made easy work of Birmingham Seaholm, 68-12, to set up the state’s most anticipated regional final.
And, for the 14th straight season, it was the Eagles coming out on top.
“Man, this is a great day,” Cheney said, beaming.
Contact sports reporter Brian Beaupied at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter: @beaupied.
ROAD TO BATTLE CREEK
Results from Wednesday’s Division 1 team regional at Walled Lake Central:
¦ SEMIFINALS: Hartland 61, Clarkston 10; Walled Lake Central 68, Birmingham Seaholm 12.
¦ FINALS: No. 3 Hartland 34, No. 6 Walled Lake Central 25
¦ NOTABLE: Eagles win their 14th consecutive regional championship to advance to next weekend’s team state finals at Kellogg Arena in Battle Creek.