J-M’s Zalar survives wild ride through section tournament

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CHARLEROI – Section wrestling tournaments normally don’t hold the type of excitement and controversy like the one held at Charleroi High School Saturday.


Normally, an event such as this Section 2-AA tournament is more a perfunctory performance than nail-biting drama.


Normally.


In the 145-pound weight class, the top seed was beaten in his first bout, the third seed didn’t make weight, a regional qualifier was ejected, and the No. 2 seed was upset in the semifinals.


That’s why Ryan Zalar of Jefferson-Morgan had to feel particularly fortunate to be standing atop the awards stand after that weight’s final bout.


The junior from Jefferson-Morgan won the gold medal with a 10-7 decision over Austin Mears of Mt. Pleasant.


The top five wrestlers in each weight class advanced to next week’s WPIAL Class AA Championships at Chartiers Valley.


“This is the first time I’ve been on top of the podium ever in high school,” said Zalar, who raised his record to 18-7 despite missing five weeks after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery in December. “All the matches were tough. I knew this would be a tough tournament.”


Jefferson-Morgan led the way in this tournament with four champions. Besides Zalar, John Demaske (126), Bill Bowlen (160) and Dustin Conti (170) were wearing gold medals. West Greene had two: Wade Blackmon (132) and Cody Jacobs (220); and Charleroi had one: Nick Gavazzi (138).


The 145-pound weight class was altered even before the tournament began when Mike Anderson of Yough, who had a 27-6 record, failed to make weight.


Then it got really bizarre.


Washington’s George Rogers, a regional qualifier last year, was thrown out of the tournament during a consolation-round match against Beth-Center’s Jason Stay at 145. Rogers was sent to the consolation round after Zalar beat him 1-0, and the second-seeded Stay fell to Mears 9-7 in the semis.


Rogers trailed Stay 3-2 in the final 10 seconds when the two went out of bounds. Rogers kicked the stands and complained to referee Greg Severyn. On the restart, Rogers aggressively went into Stay, and Severyn awarded a penalty point to Stay. Rogers bumped into Severyn and after continuing to complain, was thrown out of the tournament.


After beating Rogers in the first round, Zalar moved on to top-seeded Matt Johnston of West Greene and beat him 5-4 after catching him in a cradle for the winning points in the third period. That left Mears, who would have been Zalar’s first-round opponent had Anderson made weight.


“He was 0-2 against Mears before the championships,” said J-M head coach Scott Rhodes. “Ryan got on a roll.”


Jefferson-Morgan’s other wins seemed tame by comparison. John Demaske won his third straight title with a 4-0 shutout of Bentworth’s Vince Vahaly at 126; Bill Bowlen won a 3-2 decision over Nico Brown of Beth-Center at 160 and Dustin Conti remained undefeated at 31-0 with a pin in 1:01 of Dalton Wildman of West Greene at 170.


Gavazzi was the other undefeated wrestler in the tournament, but that nearly came to an end in the 138-pound finals. Gavazzi was thrown to his back by Jason Miller of Jefferson-Morgan for a five-point move that put him in a 6-2 hole. But Gavazzi rallied and hit a five-point move of his own in the third period to take a 10-9 decision. It was the first time this season, Gavazzi was sent to his back.


“I wasn’t worried,” Gavazzi said. “I just had to pick up the pace and score some points. That’s the third or fourth time we’ve wrestled this year. The more you wrestle someone, the closer the bouts gets.”


Jacobs was one of just seven top-seeded wrestlers to win a title. His 6-1 decision over Tom Sever of Yough took some of the sting out of finishing second in last year’s section tournament.


“I try not to overlook any tournament, no matter how big or small it is,” said Jacobs. “I’m taking it one week at a time.”


Jacobs also is counting down to his 100th career victory. He needs eight more, a reachable goal if he stays healthy and wrestles to his abilities.


“A hundred wins would be nice,” he said. “I’m going to try to make it to states for the second time in a row.”


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