HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — Another bitter end to an otherwise solid weekend.
For the third time in four years, the Point Pleasant wrestling program came away empty-handed in the state title category following the conclusion of the 2017 WVSSAC wrestling championships Saturday night at Big Sandy Superstore Arena in Cabell County.
The Big Blacks — making their first appearance at the Class AA-A level since three-peating as state champions from 2010 through 2012 — earned three podium finishes and had a pair of state runner-ups during the three-day event, which led to 74 points and a fourth-place tie with Oak Glen in the final team standings.
PPHS — which didn’t have a state champion at the 2014 or 2015 championships in Class AAA — had two chances for an individual title on Saturday night, but neither came to fruition.
Senior Grant Safford — the defending triple-A champ at 182 pounds — dropped a 6-4 decision to now four-time champion Jacob Hart of Independence in the 182-pound bout.
The first period was scoreless, then Safford claimed his only lead of the match with an escape a minute into the second period for a 1-0 edge. Hart, a senior, followed with a takedown a minute later and led 2-1 after two periods of work.
Hart escaped from the down position 45 seconds into the third period for a 3-1 lead, then landed a takedown at 1:20 to secure a commanding 5-1 edge.
Safford scored an escape and a takedown in the next 50 seconds to close back to within 5-4, but Hart mustered an escape just before the final buzzer to wrap up the 6-4 outcome.
It was a tough way to end a stellar prep career that resulted in a 172-25 overall record that included three state final matches. Safford also dropped the 195-pound Class AAA championship as a sophomore in 2015.
As disappointing as the end result was, Safford was still humble and thankful for the opportunities that he has had during his tenure as a Big Black grappler.
“I’ve had a great time at Point Pleasant and I know the amount of work that I’ve put in to get here. It’s disappointing to go out like this, but I will always have the one from my junior year and I’ve been a state finalist three times. It just wasn’t God’s plan for me tonight,” Safford said. “You always want to win that last match, but I also have other things to focus on moving forward. I’m just a football player that ended up being pretty good at wrestling.”
Safford — a two-time all-state football selection — is headed to West Virginia Wesleyan on a football scholarship.
Sophomore George Smith — the defending triple-A champ at 106 pounds — dropped a 3-0 decision to classmate Liam Lusher of Independence in the 113-pound final.
The match remained scoreless through two periods, but Lusher started the scoring with an escape from the down position for a 1-0 edge early in the third period. The match stayed that way until Lusher scored a takedown with just five seconds left as Smith tried to make a scoring move and got caught in the process.
Smith is only the second sophomore in program history to compete in consecutive state final matches, and Saturday night’s setback was the first of his career in eight state bouts. It was tough to stomach, but Smith acknowledged that this minor setback only serves as motivation to get better before next season.
“It’s disappointing, but I am thankful to again have had the opportunity to compete in a state final,” Smith said. “It didn’t go as planned, but there is always next year and I’m ready to start putting the work in during the offseason. This will serve as some fuel to come back and win a state title next year.”
Smith was one of the eight Point Pleasant underclassmen competing at the state tournament this weekend — and the only podium placer amongst that group.
Senior Andrew Roach was Point Pleasant’s only other podium finisher after placing third at 195 pounds. Roach — a first-time state qualifier — scored a 3-2 decision in double overtime against Ryan Stewart of Clay County in his first match Saturday morning, then landed a 3-1 overtime decision over Jake Abbott of Fairmont Senior in the third-place final.
Roach — who finished the year with a 39-12 overall mark — was thrilled with how his first and final state weekend at Big Sandy Superstore Arena went, but he noted that he didn’t feel as much pressure as you’d think headed into his first state competition.
A lot of those reasons included the program he has wrestled in and the people he has trained with during his time as a Big Black.
“I really can’t thank Coach Bonecutter and the staff enough because they’ve helped me become so much better in this sport over the years. I would not have been here doing this weekend without them,” Roach said. “To finally make it to state in my senior year and end up finishing third in my weight class, it just feels like all of the hard work over the years has paid off.
“I’ve been training with Grant every day for a few years now, so I knew I was prepared coming into this tournament. To go out with a pair of overtime wins on the final day at state, I don’t even know how to describe it .. except that it is awesome.”
It was the first time since the 2004 campaign that Point Pleasant did not win an individual state title at the Class AA-A tournament. The Big Blacks were also 17-19 overall in head-to-head matches as a group.
Afterwards, eighth-year PPHS coach John Bonecutter spoke about the weekend in general — with mixed reviews.
“We’re not happy or satisfied with the way things went this weekend, but you also have to know that we hit every goal that we had at the beginning of the year. We had three goals. We wanted to win dual against Ripley, we wanted to win the regional and we wanted a top-five finish at state. We, as a team, did everything we set out to do,” Bonecutter said. “At the same time, when you have two kids competing in state finals and they have opportunities to win the matches — that’s disappointing.
“It was the typical state tournament with a lot of ups and downs. We had a good weekend back in double-A and we are happy in some regards, but we are not satisfied.”
Independence stormed away with the 2017 Class AA-A title with 259 points. East Fairmont (105.5) was the overall runner-up and Petersburg claimed third place with 84.5 points.
Wirt County won the Class A team title with 55 points, while Magnolia (45) and Greenbrier West (41) rounded out the top three efforts in the single-A field. Wahama, with its four points and 2-8 overall record, finished 15th out of 19 scoring teams in the Class A field.
The Class AAA tournament is incomplete due to the 145-, 152- and 170-pound matches that need to be finished at the Fairmont Armory on March 13-14.
Complete results of the 2017 WVSSAC wrestling tournament are available on the web at wvmat.com
Bryan Walters can be reached at 740-446-2342, ext. 2101.