By Dan Gilles
Before the 32nd annual Knights of Columbus Wrestling Tournament began this past weekend at Avon Lake High School, Bay junior Adam Tepper and his teammates believed that the Rockets could surprise a lot of people.
While Bay head coach Ryan Cover wasn’t totally satisfied with his team’s performance, the fact is, his team served notice to the rest of the West Shore Conference that they are back.
The Rockets, thanks to three wrestlers reaching the championship match and one of them – freshman 106-pounder Vince Zitiello – winning an individual championship, finished second in the 15-team field with 239 total points. Only back-to-back champion Amherst’s staggering 319 points were higher than Bay’s.
“Second place was nice as a team,” Cover said. “The kids worked really hard toward it. But, overall, honestly, I’m not really happy. I saw a lot of stuff we need to improve on. But it was a good team effort. We only had one champion, but we had a lot of placers (nine in the top six; three in the top two).
“We’ve still got a lot of young guys in the lineup, but we’ve still got a lot of work to do.”
Cover felt that move execution and stamina were areas that needed to be addressed if his team wants to continue to improve.
“We had a lot of guys gassing in the third period, and there’s no excuse for that,” Cover said. “We work hard in the practice room, so we’ll take care of that. That will be something we’ll take care of immediately.”
While Bay’s team highlighted the area’s overall showing at the K of C, Lakewood junior Yassir Abdel-Salam stole the show with his performance in the 138-pound weight class – one of the two toughest weight classes in the tournament.
Abdel-Salam, who won the 126-pound title last season over Keystone state placer Williams Spangler, had another tough finals opponent in Amherst senior Alex Funderburg, who was the defending 138-pound champion at the K of C.
In a match that lived up to the hype, Abdel-Salam defeated Funderburg, 8-6, in overtime to become a two-time K of C champion with a chance at a third next season.
“A performance like this is only going to help get me ready more for Columbus,” Abdel-Salam said. “This is just all practice for the postseason. I couldn’t wrestle districts because I didn’t make weight, and I’m going to make sure that doesn’t happen again this year.
“I’ve got to pick it up this year. I can’t mess around no more. I should have made it to state last year, but I’ve just got to work harder for it. I’ll probably be dropping down to 132 by (Dec.) 15, so that should help.”
Through two periods, the match was tied at 4, and an escape by Abdel-Salam early in the period looked to be enough as time ran down.
But, on a restart with 12.5 seconds remaining, Funderburg took a shot and took down Abdel-Salam to take a 6-5 lead. However, Funderburg was called for locking hands just before time ran out, giving Abdel-Salam the tying point and setting up overtime.
Abdel-Salam quickly took control on an attempted shot by Funderburg and was given two points to end the match just 20 seconds into the extra session.
“I was a lot sloppier than I wanted to be,” he said. “I wasn’t wrestling how I usually wrestle. I’m kind of disappointed. I wasn’t thinking (with 12 seconds left). It woke me up, though. That’s when I started picking it up.
“I said to myself, ‘It’s time for me to wake up.’ That’s what I did in overtime.”
Abdel-Salam was Lakewood’s only individual champion, helping the Rangers finish eighth with 137 points.
Senior Ralph Johnson, who went his whole freshman year without a single victory, advanced to the 170-pound championship. However, he was handed a 9-0 major decision loss by Amherst’s Mike Sliman. Also, Emanual Lewis pinned Bay’s Matt Beniard in 1:31 to take third at 220 and give the Rangers three placers.
“We’re real young, and our young’s a lot different than a lot of other people’s young,” Lakewood head coach Vinnie Curiale said. “When I say we’re young, a lot of our kids have only been wrestling a month-and-a-half. Most teams, when they say their kids are young, they’ve at least got a couple of years under their belts.
“We’re starting three freshmen and two more than weren’t here this weekend. We’ll be able to fill a fill team for the duals, but that will be with a lot of young kids. We actually outdid what I thought we’d be able to do.”
Zitiello won the first individual championship of the tournament, defeating Rocky River’s Aaron Kelly, 10-5, in the 106-pound finals.
“It’s real big for him,” Cover said. “He’s been wrestling since he was a little kid. He’s probably one of our most experienced kids, even though he’s a freshman. Anytime you can win a championship at the Knights of Columbus is a big win. That’s starting the season off right for him. That’s real nice.”
Juniors Ben (113) and Adam Tepper (120) gave Bay three finalists in a row. However, both Teppers were handed 14-4 major decision losses to a pair of North Ridgeville wrestlers. Ben Tepper lost to defending K of C runner-up Evan Collier, while Adam Tepper lost to Drew Dickson, who wound up becoming the 13th three-time K of C individual champion in history.
Both of Adam Tepper’s last two opponents suffered shoulder injuries during their matches. Keystone senior Dylan Stiner, a defending K of C champion and state qualifier, had to default down to sixth place. Dickson was able to finish his match with the victory.
Cody Wright took third at 182 pounds, pinning Clearview’s Divante Holt in 3:16.
Bay was the highest finisher of the seven West Shore Conference teams competing at the tournament and emerged from a four-team scrum to take second. The Rockets edged North Ridgeville (third, 203), Avon (fourth, 185.5) and Rocky River (fifth, 184).
“I do feel good (about finishing highest out of the WSC teams), but looking at the other teams, I think there will be a tight race for the West Shore,” Cover said. “Avon, River, Ridgeville, we’re all right there. There’s going to be a lot of jockeying around throughout the season, so it’s going to be fun.”
Kelly was the only finalist for Rocky River. Brad Spau was the Pirates’ next highest finisher, taking third at 120 with a 4-0 win over Avon’s Jack Gothier.