COLUMBIA, Mo. -With a state team title riding squarely on his shoulders, you might have thought Blair Oaks wrestler Cole Kemna would have been feeling the pressure.
Not even close.
It's a breeze compared to watching your team perform and not being able to help, which is what happened when Kemna missed last year's state tournament with a broken elbow. And it's so much easier than having to see another season possibly going down the tubes thanks to an injury, which was the case a month ago.
Wrestling? Never has it seemed so easy.
Kemna, needing a win to give the Falcons their first team title in school history, delivered the goods Saturday night at Mizzou Arena. His 7-5 win at 170 pounds against Lathrop's Josh Hartzell rallied the Falcons to the Class 1 championship.
"Before all my matches I told myself, "I'm just glad to be here and I'm going to enjoy it because I can't take any of this for granted,'" the senior said. "I just went out each match and had the most fun I could, and this is what happened."
Trailing 2-0 after one period and 2-1 after two, Kemna put a charge into the Blair Oaks crowd by getting a takedown with 1:17 left in the match and three near-fall points immediately after to go up 6-2.
"(Hartzell) kind of slipped and was on his knee and I was like, "I'm down ... and I've got to hit something,'" he said. "So I went for the throw and I caught him. That's basically what won the match for me."
But of course it wouldn't come easy. A stalling call on Kemna cut his lead to 6-3, then Hartzell got a takedown with :40 left to make it 6-5. Kemna got an escape and then avoided Hartzell's last-ditch attempts at a takedown as time ran out.
Kemna, who missed a month of the season with a knee injury only to return just in time for districts, said he went into the match knowing he needed to win to deliver the title. His broad shoulders were more than wide enough to carry the load.
"I did like that pressure, it just makes the stakes that much higher and makes it all that much more important," he said.
Kemna, who ends the season with a record of 26-3, posted wins on his way to the title against wrestlers with records of 42-5, 41-8, 42-1 and 51-2. In case you're not good at math, that's 176-16.
"Coming into state, I was like, "Dang, I've got ranked kids from the start,'" he said. "I was pretty confident, but I was so nervous before my first match because I wasn't sure I was going to be able to get past that one, or the second, or the next. I just focused on one match at a time."
Kemna leaves as a three-time state medalist, as he took third at 103 pounds as a freshman and second at 120 as a sophomore.
For a while now, the Falcons have been doing a good job of getting "firsts" at state.
Two years ago, they got their first individual state champion with Craig Clark. Last year, they got their first undefeated state champion with Eli Roberts.
Now, they've got their first year with two individual champs as Logan Mudd joined Kemna as Blair Oaks wrestlers atop the podium, capturing the crown at 145 pounds.
His opponent in the final was a familiar one, as Mudd took on Holden's Auston Gerth. One week after meeting in the district title match, with Mudd rallying for a 9-8 victory, the Falcon blanked Gerth 5-0 on Saturday.
Asked after the match how he felt, Mudd's answer was a simple one.
"Exhausted," he said. "(Gerth) was really strong."
Mudd got a first-period takedown and then neither wrestler scored in the second. A letup escape gave him a 3-0 lead to start the third, and he got a takedown to finish the scoring.
With it being the third meeting of the season between the two, Mudd and Gerth seemed to anticipate each other's every move. Mudd said the reason he was able to shut out Gerth after last week's close call was simple.
"My goal was to be smart, watch what he was doing and play a defensive game because he's really offensive," Mudd said.
The senior, who went 45-1 this season, said he had to deal with a lot of pressure this season after finishing second at 138 last year, losing in the final to nationally ranked Chris Wilkes of Whitfield.
"I feel relieved more than anything," he said. "It's my last year and I had to finish it off."
Mudd departs as a four-time medalist for the Falcons. He took fourth at 119 as a freshman and was fourth at 132 as a sophomore before last year's finish.
Blair Oaks ended Whitfield's two-year reign as state champions, but it didn't come easily. In fact, Saturday resembled a roller-coaster ride.
The Falcons started the day with 88 points, 9.5 ahead of Whitfield and 17.5 in front of Marceline. Entering the third- and fifth-place matches, the lead had dipped to 2.5 points on Whitfield and 7.5 on Marceline. By the time the title matches rolled around, the Falcons' lead was back up to 4.5 on Whitfield and 9.5 on Marceline.
"It was a grueling, grueling tournament," Blair Oaks coach Tim Karsten said. "It was tough and we hung in there."
By the time Mudd's match rolled around, he could have clinched the title for the Falcons with a pin. Instead, he got the win by decision and suddenly, Blair Oaks' lead against Whitfield was just 90-89.5 and Marceline was out of the race.
Mudd said trying for a pin was never part of the plan.
"Not going for pin (was the play) - trying not to make a mistake," Mudd said. "Coach just said, "Get the win and the team will follow.'"
Soon after, Whitfield's Rodney Hahn won his fourth straight state title, by fall, and that gave the Warriors a lead of 95.5-94.
That set the stage for Kemna's heroics, and 12 years after starting the program, Karsten delivered a state title to the school.
"It was a long road," he said. "We had a lot of ups and downs, just like this tournament. But I've got to give it to the kids, they just keep coming back and fighting for it. That's what it's all about. The kids do it all."
Karsten added he was glad to have the support of the Blair Oaks community Saturday at Mizzou Arena.
"One of my goals was to have the fans come in here and cheer and have the support that could sway a match, and we had that tonight," he said. "We've got great fans at Blair Oaks and they've had 12 years of learning about wrestling and it finally caught on - cheer when it matters. It's like fourth down, cheer. They got into, "Let's go Cole,' and he did."
The Falcons had the chance to have three individual champions, but Frankie Falotico suffered a heartbreaking loss at 126 pounds to Derrick Swaney of Whitfield.
Neither wrestler scored in the first period, and after Falotico chose down to start the second, neither one scored in that period.
Swaney got an early reversal in the third period for the match's only points, and literally held on as Falotico nearly got a reversal in the closing seconds that would have tied it.
Swaney wrapped up his senior season with a record of 48-7, while sophomore Falotico ended at 43-3.
Earlier in the day, senior Brad Thomas picked up a fifth-place finish at 152 and also picked up some key points while depriving Whitfield of them.
Thomas never trailed while squeaking out a 3-1 win against Conrad Chadwick of Whitfield.
After a scoreless first period, Thomas started down in the second and got an escape. He followed it up with a takedown for a 3-0 lead before Chadwick got the final points of the period, and the match, on an escape.
Chadwick started down in the third and Thomas was able to control him the entire two minutes for the win.
Thomas started the day with a 5-1 loss to Nate Florine of Marceline.
The Falcons got a sixth-place finish from London Gaydos at 120, as he dropped both of his matches on the day. The freshman started out with a loss by fall to Fatima's Cody Huhn in wrestlebacks before falling 9-7 to Plattsburg's Derek Guyer in the fifth-place match.
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