By Pat Dailey (For OzarkSportsZone.com)
BRANSON — The prospect of a terrific trio of 106-pounders each ranked No. 1 statewide gave the mighty mites top billing entering the Branson Invitational Saturday.
Alas, only two of the top-ranked wrestlers, as pegged by MissouriWrestling.com, competed at 106. But the final between Neosho’s Cayden Auch and Seneca’s Levi Connelly lived up to the hype.
Auch (32-2), ranked No. 1 in Class 3, eked out a 7-6 win versus Connelly (27-3), ranked No. 1 in Class 1. Monett’s Joseph Semerad (36-3), ranked No. 1 in Class 2, was a late scratch at 106 and instead competed at 113.
“I was texting a friend of mine last night and he said (Semerad) had been bumped up,” Auch said. “I was disappointed because I wanted to get a match in with him. But I’ll get one against him in our dual with them. I still knew it was going to be a hard-fought match with everyone I faced.”
Points were plentiful for Auch and Connelly in an action-packed match.
“I got a spladle, but he kind of rolled out of it and caught me on my back,” Auch said. “I got out of it and was telling myself, ‘This is still my match.’”
Only a freshman, Auch appears on his way to fulfilling hopes he can make history at Neosho. He first caught fans’ notice by winning a Winter Nationals championship as a seventh-grader.
“My goal is to be Neosho’s first four-timer,” Auch said, going on to confirm he’s referring to being a four-time state champion. “Our coach knows that and he’s been pushing me in the practice room because he wants me to be a four-timer.”
Auch was one of five Neosho champions Saturday, as the Wildcats rolled to the team title. The seven-time Class 3 state champs (over the past eight years) broke away from an elite field with 319 points. Bentonville, Arkansas, was a distant runner-up with 250.5 points and Seneca was third with 242.5. Smithville, which finished second to Neosho at State last year, was fourth with 209.
Also winning gold medals for Neosho were Trenton Young (132), Joey Williams (182), Zane Persinger (220) and Adrian Hitchcock (285).
Persinger (22-11) made for a rare underdog story for the Wildcats. As a No. 5 seed, he was the lowest seed to win a championship
“People doubted me and I proved them wrong,” Persinger said.
He also left no doubts who deserved the 220 crown by recording a pin versus Marcus Tortorello, of Fayetteville, Arkansas, in 2:37 in the final.
Persinger thinks strong competition Neosho faced at the Kansas City International Tournament in December triggered his uprising. He was fifth at the Branson Invite last year.
“I came in to this tournament with the mindset I have to win this,” Persinger said. “I had to find (Tortorello’s) weaknesses. I found out he couldn’t stop my sweep. I got a sweep shot and then worked my wing on top. He wasn’t in very good position and went for my head, so I instantly head-and-armed him.”
Hitchcock and Carl Junction’s Zeke Wall met in the 285 final to add to what has been a long and friendly rivalry. Hitchcock (33-2) pinned Wall (18-2) in 4:47. Afterward, they posed for pictures together.
They also met for the Class 3 285 championship last year. Hitchcock also put Wall on his back in that matchup.
“We wrestled once in eight grade and now in high school I think we’ve wrestled each other five or six times,” Hitchcock said. “He’s always working hard and making strides, but so far he hasn’t beat me.
“We’re good friends. We used to hate each other because we have that competitive edge. But I found out he’s a pretty good guy and we’ve been friends for a few years.”
Hitchcock needed only a total of 7:42 to post his four pins. He reports he’s 11 shy of the state record for career pins.
Williams notched a tourney-high five pins in a total of 5:42 while dominating the 182 bracket.
Young (31-6) beat Max Roark (25-4), of Seneca, in the 132 final for his third championship at Branson. He drew motivation by recalling his fifth-place finish in the tournament two years ago.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” Young said. “That was a tough tournament. But I’ve been able to bounce back. This season is going good. I’m excited to see how it’s going to finish out.”
Monett’s Karter Brink (39-0) remained one of the few unbeaten grapplers in southwest Missouri by taking the 120 championship. He beat Carl Junction’s Coby Burchett 7-3 in the final.
Burchett (14-6) made the title tilt as a 10th seed.
“I wrestled him when we were younger, so I knew he was going to be a tough kid,” Brink said. “I knew his technique and how he was going to wrestle. I knew he was going to be hard to take down. But I thought I could ride him on top
“I wrestled my hardest and it turned out good.”
Brink found himself opposite teammate Matthew Bahl in a semifinal. Brink prevailed 4-1.
“I thought he would be in the final. But he ended up being on the same side of the bracket as me,” Brink said. “That was hard to wrestling a teammate. But you can’t be a friend while you’re wrestling.”
This is the furthest in a season Brink has been undefeated.
“A lot of people are looking out for me,” he said. “I’m the guy to get. I’ve got to work hard. There is more pressure. But that pressure makes me feel like I have to work harder.”
Monett’s Joel Barrientos (22-3) won gold at 126. A state champ at 113 last year, Barrientos beat Obi Smith, of Bentonville, Arkansas, 4-2, in the final round.
McDonald County’s Oscar Ortiz (26-3) claimed a 12-5 win against Neosho’s Colton Sanders (25-9) to capture the 113 title. Sanders gained a 5-1 semifinal win against Semerad, a state champ at 106 last year.