By Chris Parker & Zach Mason
Neosho is back on top of the Class 3 wrestling world after a year hiatus.
The Wildcats slipped to a second place finish last year 2.5 points behind archrival Kearney in the final standings.
It was a result that motivated the entire program for the last year.
“With the ups and downs you have got to keep kids focused on battling back and keeping the faith in the outcome that we are looking for. Losing last year has been on me since then. It hurt. We set our goals early this season and we took steps daily to work towards them. Even towards the end of the season we had guys adjusting goals to get to the podium. It takes a lot of grit,” Neosho coach Jeremy Phillips said.
That focus and grit paid off with a team total of 141.5 team points to win the Class 3 state championship. Kearney finished four points back in second place.
Team is always on the mind for Neosho and that was especially true for Neosho’s Cayden Auch in the 126-pound championship match.
“My biggest motivation was my team. I’d hear Kearney, who is in second, cheering against me and that would motivate me. We can’t fall short again, we fell short last year and we aren’t going to let it happen again,” Auch said.
Auch faced a familiar foe in McDonald County’s Oscar Ortiz. Both wrestlers were returning state champions who had wrestled three previous times this season with Auch winning all three bouts.
“I knew I’d beat him (Ortiz) before but he’s a real tough kid. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy; it was going to be a dog fight,” Auch said. “He’s got great coaches, I knew they’d game plan me. Last year he lost three times prior to state and beat the kid he’d lost to three times.”
Ortiz looked like he was going to make history repeat itself as he carried a 3-2 lead into the final period. Time began running out on Auch’s chances of a repeat state championship as he struggled to get off of the bottom and score an escape to tie the match.
“I just had to keep the faith,” Auch said. “I knew I have a lot of training, I have put in a lot of time on my wrestling and my gas tank. I knew I could go harder longer if I kept the faith.”
Auch kept working and finally found his opening with 25 seconds left in the match to score a reversal and take the lead. He would hold on as the seconds finally ticked away to finish off a 4-3 win.
Neosho would crown one more state champion with Braxton Barnes winning the 145-pound championship with a dominating 13-2 major decision over Christian Zeik from Liberty Wentzville.
“It’s been my goal my entire life to go out there in my last high school match and do it (win a state championship),” Barnes said. “Especially because it secured the team title for us. We’re state champs baby. It’s awesome.”
Drayke Perry (182) and Zane Persinger (220) both second in their respective weight classes. Landon Kivett (4th at 106), Kolton Sanders (6th at 132) and Alec Rothman (5th at 152) rounded out the placers for Neosho.
Rolla’s Nathan Pulliam brought an undefeated record into the 132-pound championship. It was a familiar feeling for the sophomore. Last year he carried an undefeated record into the state championship, but would come up short and finish runner-up.
He was ready to wipe the memory of that match away with a championship finish on Saturday. He would have to get by Pacific’s Callum Sitek to do it. Sitek gave him a tough match in January. A match that Pulliam won by two points.
“That match in the beginning of the year was one of my first matches back so I just told myself that I was a little bit rusty. I worked on a lot since then. Your pace is so much better. Your gas tank is way better,” Pulliam said.
Pulliam, who fractured his hip in a district soccer game, was out the first two months of the season.
The Rolla sophomore was definitely sharper and in better shape on Saturday as Stiek never really threatened Pulliam on his way to a 5-0 win by decision and the 132-pound state championship.
“(It) Feels good, especially after last year and that long season. This year, I told myself don’t think about anything, you were that close last year so do it this year,” Pulliam said.
The COC had three wrestlers post runner-up finishes in addition to Neosho’s two second place finishers. Christian and Michael Finley earned second-place finishes at 106 and 113 pounds while Republic’s Jonathan O’Connell was runner-up at 138 pounds.