CLEVELAND, Tenn. — As good as they’ve been — including the traditional state tournament last year — it seems that Cleveland’s wrestling Blue Raiders have spent their lives gazing down the highway at Bradley Central.
Try as they might, they couldn’t seem to get over the hump. Even that state title last year came after the Bears had won the state duals championship.
“There have been a lot of 6 a.m. workouts and even more year-round training,” Cleveland coach Eric Phillips said after his Blue Raiders finally spanked their town’s wrestling kingpins 51-11 with a near picture-perfect performance at Bradley.
Denied the city championship since 1995, Cleveland recorded its largest margin of victory in the series since a 53-12 win in 1978. It was the fewest points the Bears have scored against Cleveland since they managed 11 in 1977.
“We started with some seniors and I told them, ‘If you don’t get it now, you may graduate without ever beating them,’” Phillips said.
The Blue Raiders won the close ones along with the ones they were supposed to win, taking 11 of the 14 bouts and running off seven wins in a row from 106 through 145 pounds. They got three straight pins from Chris DeBien (106), Austin Stevison (113) and Austin Oliver to jump from a 15-4 advantage to a 33-4 lead.
Most observers felt before the season began that this would be Cleveland’s year for the upset as Bradley struggled to fill experienced slots voided by graduation with somewhat inexperienced talent. Even first-year Bears head coach Ben Smith knew it was a possibility. But not like this.
“I felt like we needed to win two of those first three in the lower weights,” Smith said as he battled to control his emotions. “They got the momentum and we just couldn’t break through. That snowball just continued to roll.”
The Blue Raiders also got pins from Haden Hamilton (138), Brandon Strickland (145) and Seth Snyder (220). The close wins came from Juan Bobe (4-3 at 170 to open the meet), Oleg Stukanov (6-4 at 182), Ezra Taylor (7-6 at 126) and Joel Simpkins (5-3 in overtime at 132).
Taylor scored an escape with 0:02 left to upset second-ranked Jericho Crutcher, and Simpkins scored a takedown midway through the sudden-victory period.
“I don’t know what to say. We fought hard up top and we were set up to start rolling, and instead they took us to the woodshed,” Smith said. “We didn’t fall apart. I guess, though, sometimes getting taken behind the woodshed is good for you.”
Phillips was delighted to get something Cleveland has long fought for, but he threw a lot of credit Bradley Central’s way.
“We’re only as good as we are right now because of Bradley,” he said. “When we started six years ago [the first three with Heath Eslinger at the helm], we copied their blueprint. I love this win, but you have to get credit to them.”
Ward Gossett is an assistant sports editor and writer for the Times Free Press. Ward has a long history in Chattanooga journalism. He actually wrote a bylined story for the Chattanooga News-Free Press as a third-grader. He Began working part-time there in 1968 and was hired full time in 1970. Ward now covers high school athletics, primarily football, wrestling and baseball and University of Tennessee at Chattanooga wrestling. Over a 40-year career, he has covered ...