The countdown came from the crowd inside Silver Spurs Arena, and Charles Small began to let his opponent off the mat.
Three, two, one.
Andrew Gugliemini was the first to raise his hands above his head on the sideline.
Small gathered himself near the middle of the mat. He fumbled with the chinstrap on his head gear for only a moment before he tore it off his head. Small raised it high above his head and in one motion flung it through his legs and bouncing off the mat.
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A “Gronk spike,” Gugliemini would call it later. As the buzzer sounded on a 4-1 win against Kissimmee Osceola’s Ethan DeLong on Saturday, it was a cathartic moment in Kissimmee.
Small strutted around the mat at Osceola Heritage Park, ready to wear the Class 3A gold medal that came with Manatee’s 10th individual state championship. It’s possible his was the most unlikely. The 160-pounder didn’t start wrestling until his freshman year and at last year’s state tournament he finished sixth. To even make it to the championship match, the Hurricanes knew Small would probably have to spring the biggest upset of the weekend.
“I was pretty nervous this morning,” Small said.
Small was one of two 3A finalists for the Hurricanes and one of three from Manatee County. Hurricane 120-pounder Marshall Craig settled for silver with a 6-1 loss to Kissimmee Osceola’s Malyke Hines, and Lakewood Ranch 132-pounder Hunter Reed took silver after a second-round pin at the hands of Homestead South Dade’s Alyis Mursuli. Chase Sharp was the county’s only other podium finish in Class 3A with a sixth-place finish in the 195-pound weight class for the Mustangs.
Both Craig and Reed followed a more traditional path to championship contention, with top-three finishes at the state tournament in their past. Small’s route diverged, even if it was only slightly.
Gugliemini has a trajectory for the wrestlers he expects to contend for a state title. “The Formula,” the head coach calls it. He needs to get his feet under him as a freshman and make the state tournament as a sophomore. By his junior year, the wrestler should be ready to place.
Small mostly followed the path Gugliemini likes to lay out for his state championship hopefuls. As a freshman, he learned the ropes; as a sophomore, he qualified for the state meet; and then as a junior, he placed.
Small did it all, even if placing only meant a sixth-place finish in 2016. Gugliemini admits he didn’t envision this sort of a leap until Christmastime, when the Hurricanes traveled to New Jersey for a tournament. Small wrestled with some of the best wrestlers from another state. His attitude improved. The only hurdle, Gugliemini figured, would be Winter Springs’ Max Wohlabaugh.
“I think this one probably means a little more in some aspects because of how far he’s come, not only as a wrestler, but as a person,” Gugliemini said. “Somewhere along the line he started thinking he could do it.”
The taste of the podium — as short as his was — happened to be enough to spark Small. He finished third in his weight class at the Disney Duals during the summer to earn All-American status. He went to Tulsa, Okla., to wrestle with Team Florida. Then he departed for Granite Bay, Calif., where he spent five weeks transforming his body and transforming as a wrestler at Wrestling Prep.
It was the longest Small had been away from home, and when he returned to Bradenton, he was ready to wrestle as a 160-pounder and he was ready to take the sort of leap no one expected.
There was a chance none of it would matter, though. Wohlabaugh is regarded by some as one of the 10 best wrestlers in the state. He spent most of his summer at the same tournaments as Small, just finishing a bit better each time. In all likelihood, Small would have to go through him to win his state title.
“I’d wrestled with Max,” Small said. “I know him. I know he’s a tough guy, but when it came down to it I’ve got to go out and win.”
Not long after 10 a.m. on Saturday, Small stepped to the mat against Wohlabaugh. He and the coaching staff had a plan: Keep it low scoring. Turn it into a one-takedown match.
There was only one takedown in the one-point match, and Small nailed it.
“Probably gets the biggest upset in the whole tournament,” Gugliemi said, “and then takes care of business in the finals. State champ.”