By Brian Beaupied
The Livingston Post
MOUNT PLEASANT – In his 24 seasons, Todd Cheney has built one of the most successful wrestling programs in the state.
On Saturday, with a near flawless performance, Hartland’s wrestling team captured what has long eluded Cheney and his Eagles: a state championship.
Starting with the meat of its lineup, Hartland jumped out to a 21-3 lead and disposed of Davison, 36-23, to win the program’s first title Saturday at McGuirk Arena on the campus of Central Michigan University.
“I always tell the kids, ‘Win with class and lose with class’,” Cheney said. “This year, I don’t have to say that word (lose).
“It’s just unbelievable,” he added. “This community is incredible. It’s an amazing moment for our kids, their families, their parents, you name it. How can you not just look around and look at their faces and understand everything that they worked for they just got?”
The Eagles (34-1) were making their sixth appearance in a state championship match under Cheney and second in a row. Last year, Hartland fell to rival Brighton, 31-25, in a dual decided in the final match.
It didn’t come to that Saturday.
Davison got on the board first with a decision at 135 pounds, but Hartland all-stater Reece Hughes countered with a victory at 140 to tie the score early at 3 apiece.
Undefeated senior Sage Castillo dropped to 145 and recorded a first-period fall, with another senior, Logan Vish, following suit.
“It means a lot, you know,” Castillo said. “Coming out every single year and coming up just short, it sucks, but I got used to it.
“This year, winning it meant everything. We pushed even harder to win this state title, and it just means everything to us right now.”
At 160, and appearing to be kept to a decision, Hartland senior Lucas Laforge caught Davison’s Gabe Ellis in a headlock, pinning him late in the third period. Hartland 21, Davison 3.
“That was definitely huge,” Laforge said. “Coach always stresses, you know, that we need to get the bonus. Going in, I think there were 30 seconds left, I thought, ‘I need to get this bonus.’ I just went for it and I got it.
“I remember last time I was here, I was in the exact same position and I didn’t throw (the headlock) because I was scared. This year, I thought ‘I’m not scared. I have nothing to be scared of’ and I went out and I got it. I got the bonus for the team.”
It’s that kind of fed-up attitude that had festered all season and spilled over onto the mat Saturday.
The Eagles loaded their schedule with top in-state and out-of-state competition, including Division 3 champion Dundee, as well as semifinalist Detroit Catholic Central, and Davison, among others.
“Everyone was telling us good luck and all this stuff,” Laforge said, “and I was like, if we’re not ready for this right now, then we’re never going to be ready.”
Brendan McRill gave the Cardinals life with a pin at 171 to make it 21-9, but the Eagles took two of the next three weight classes with wins by decision from Andrew Spisz (189) and senior heavyweight Brandon Krol.
Hartland freshman Kyle Kantola’s first-period pin at 103 put the Eagles on the brink, 33-12, with four matches to go, but with firepower coming up for the Cardinals.
The Eagles’ underclassmen weren’t done yet, though.
Another freshman, Corey Cavanaugh, held former state champion Max Johnson to a technical fall at 112. Then, against defending champion A.J. Facundo, sophomore Carter Hankins’ escape at the third-period buzzer held Davison to a 14-7 decision, clinching the championship.
A year after being on the mat for the decisive final match, junior Garnet Potter capped the championship with a 6-5 decision at 130.
Hartland won eight of 14 matches, and limited bonus points in a big way.
Aaron Laird, a postseason mercenary for the Eagles the last two years, made his season debut Saturday. Laird held Davison state qualifier Tanner Thomas to a 5-3 decision at 215. Senior Noah Lopez, meanwhile, held top-ranked Deven Perez to a 6-5 decision at 125.
Davison (24-5) finishes as runners-up for the third time in four years. The Cardinals’ last title came in 2006, the last of five in a row and three straight against Cheney’s Eagles.
Hartland finished as state finalists for four straight seasons from 2004-07.
“This will be a new speech, thank God,” Cheney said, addressing a group of reporters, “because that runner-up stuff is for the birds.”
A state championship, finally, for Cheney and the Eagles.
NOTES: The championship is Livingston County’s third in wrestling and second in as many years, with Hartland joining Brighton (2015) and Fowlerville (1994). … Cheney has led the Eagles to 15 straight regional championships and has a 667-97-2 record in 24 seasons. … Hartland’s lineup consists of a program-best 11 individual state qualifiers, who will compete next weekend at The Palace of Auburn Hills and the individual state finals. … Hartland senior Kyle Cavanaugh recorded his 100th career victory in Saturday’s semifinals, a 42-19 victory over Oxford.