By Donald Heath
Special for the Effingham Herald
Concerns about the spread of COVID-19 translated into concerns about the close contact of high school wrestling, but the season pushed on, concluding with the state tournament and providing another year of highlights for the county.
South Effingham’s Brayden Bell placed second in the GHSA Class AAAAAA State Championships in Macon on Friday, falling just short of becoming the county’s fourth state champion in as many years.
And Effingham County added a new local chapter to the sport when Mia Bernacki became the first female to place at the state tournament.
“There was some talk after the holidays about possibly cancelling the season,” ECHS coach Nico Guggino said.
Bell, a senior, had other concerns, fighting through football injuries at the start of the season. But he saved his best for last. He advanced to the state finals in the 182-pound weight class and was deadlocked with Glynn Academy’s Jackson Wakeland in the third period.
As the wrestlers tangled going out of bounds with 35 seconds left, an official ruled Bell grabbed Wakeland’s singlet (uniform). Bell was assessed a one-point penalty and eventually lost 2-1.
“I didn’t see it but Brayden didn’t protest,” SEHS coach Christopher Bringer said. “It’s a technical violation, just like an offensive lineman grabbing a jersey in football, and it’s going to be called every time.”
A year ago, Bell finished third in the Class AAAAA 170-pound weight class and seemed to have a shot at continuing the run of local state champions — ECHS’ Zebrandon Gant (2018), Zekeil Walls (2019) and SEHS’ Austin Blaske (2020).
Bell (17-2) won his first two matches at state with pins, then went to overtime in the semifinals to meet up with Wakeland, who he defeated a week earlier at region.
“It was definitely a tough way to go, but (Bell) had an amazing run and beat some tough guys to get to the finals,” Bringer said.
Bernacki had an amazing run as well. She won three matches at state and only lost to girls who placed second and third in the all-classification 197-pound weight class.
“We’re very proud of Mia,” Guggino said. “She practiced against the boys and took her lumps, but she kept working hard. Hopefully, her success will lead to getting more girls participating here.”
ECHS and SEHS combined to send 18 wrestlers (17 boys and one girl) to state and five finished in the top six of their weight classes to earn medals.
Rebels sophomore Conner Nevin (39-12) advanced to the semifinals in the 113-pound weight class before losing a decision, then won twice in the consolation bracket to finish third.
Along the way, Nevin defeated Mustang Jacob Galindez, who placed fifth. Galindez (31-7) won four matches.
“Conner pretty much dominated the entire tournament,” Guggino said. “He just made one mistake (in the semifinal match), but he peaked at the right time.”
ECHS sophomore Mal Santiago (38-7) won five matches at 106 and finished fifth.
Bringer said seeing his young wrestlers get experience in the state tournament makes the Mustangs future look bright.
Junior Anton Blanchard (30-7) won three matches at 126 and sophomore Enrique Santana (14-7) won twice at 152.
Juniors Jaylen Hosking (17-12) and D’Angelo Jackson (17-5) won a match at 132 and 160 respectively.
Freshman DaMyon McFarlin, who won just one match during the regular season and then won three times at region, added another win at state at 220 and finished with a 5-5 record
Sophomore Louis Hicks (9-18) and freshman Ashton Anderson (22-12) lost both their matches. Anderson had two forfeit wins and advanced to the quarterfinals of the 285-pound weight class.
Guggino watched three key seniors in the Rebels’ program — Bryce Vanderhoek (126-pound weight class), Corbitt Parrish (132) and Tyler Kesler (138) — end on high notes.
Kesler (35-6) won three times and just missed placing after being eliminated in an overtime decision. Vanderhoek (27-7) and Parrish (35-9) each won twice.
ECHS sophomores Cameron Baca (120), Josh Kleckauskas (195) and Jackson Blaine (285) each lost both of their matches. Baca finished the season with a 22-9 record, Kleckauskas was 19-13 and Blaine was 9-16.