On Friday, February 8, Leesville wrestling set out for New Bern High School with a single goal in mind: qualify as many wrestlers for the state tournament as possible.
New Bern High School was the site of the 4A East regional tournament this season, and certainly not a quick drive for most. Leesville’s own trek—traveled via minibus—was a two and a half hour ordeal.
Upon arrival, the team was greeted with an intense scene; unfamiliar to the primarily rookie lineup, but a welcome sight to the seasoned veterans of the team. 18 teams of wrestlers filled the gym from wall to wall, a twinge of animosity filling the space. Under normal circumstances, most of these people could be training partners—even friends. But these were not normal circumstances. Every wrestler in that building had the same goal: to quality for the state tournament. Only the top four wrestlers in a weight class qualify, so the pressure was on.
By the end of the first day of competition, Leesville had five out of nine wrestlers set to compete in the semifinals and not one wrestler eliminated from the tournament. Leesville’s record for number of qualifiers in a single season was five, and it appeared that they were on track to break that record. By the time the semifinals were over, Leesville Wrestling already had three state qualifiers: Maximus Buico, Richie Rizzuto, and Jacob Polansky.
Other than the three finalists, Leesville had four wrestlers remaining in the tournament. These wrestlers would have to undergo the toughest challenge the regional tournament has to offer: the blood round. The blood round is a last ditch effort to qualify for states; if you win, you’ve qualified and compete for third place, but if you lose, your season ends right then and there. Of the four in the blood round, three tasted victory and punched their tickets to the state tournament.
“Qualifying for states…I don’t even know how to describe the feeling,” said Tucker Jessup, a sophomore on Leesville’s wrestling team. “I’m excited to be going to States, but I’m even more excited to have broken the qualifier record and been a part of making school history.”
Leesville ended the regional tournament in fourth place as a team, and qualified six wrestlers for the state tournament. Brandon Jones(senior), Tucker Jessup(sophomore), and Cole Patterson(sophomore) took fourth place, Maximus Buico(junior) and Richie Rizzuto(junior) took second, and Jacob Polansky(junior) finished in first place.
With the season entering its home stretch, a bit of last minute training was in order. State qualifiers from Millbrook, Leesville, Wake Forest, Heritage, Sanderson, and Enloe gathered at Millbrook High School to train for the remaining days before states. With goals in mind, focus’ sharpened, and bodies prepared, the wrestlers then set off for the state tournament.
For those not prepared, the sheer magnitude of the state tournament can be more than a bit daunting. Ten mats, a coliseum full of fans and the best wrestlers in the state, all in the heart of downtown Greensboro…it’s enough to rattle even seasoned veterans of the sport. This was the stage these wrestlers have been training all year to compete in. From February 15-17, this would be the stage where Leesville would display the culmination of their hard work.
The first day was an even split, with three Leesville wrestlers taking wins, and three taking losses. By the second day, Jones, Patterson, and Jessup had fallen a second time, ending their seasons. Buico also took his first loss to Richard Theanor(the eventual state champion), but bounced back with a win later the same day. Rizzuto and Polansky both advanced to the semifinals, but while Polansky was trounced by Jordan Norman, the eventual state champion, Rizzuto advanced to the finals becoming only the second person in Leesville history to do so.
The final day of wrestling brought much heartbreak to the weary Leesville wrestlers. Buico lost a razor close match in the blood round, ending his season right then and there. Polansky went on to lose his next match, sliding to the fifth/sixth placement round, winning his final match, and finishing fifth in the state. In the finals, Rizzuto lost in a gut wrenching 3-2 match. At the end of the day, the long and grueling wrestling season was over.
“Getting to States—finally being able to compete on that stage—that’s been my goal since freshman year,” said Patterson. “I was never nervous going in, because this is what we do…we compete, and we keep getting better. We have two amazing coaches in Coach Wyss and Coach Joe and some really good teammates…this season may be over but it’s not the end.”