SANBORN — Niagara Wheatfield was satisfied with reaching the state tournament but wasn’t ready to win.
The Falcons qualified for states as a wild-card after losing to Starpoint in the Division I Section VI championship. But after defeating Fox Lane, Niagara Wheatfield’s day in Syracuse was finished with a second-place finish in Pool A, as it ran into a wall against eventual state runner-up Minisink Valley.
But now doubts have turned into confidence for the Falcons. And with a renowned sense of hunger, the red-and-black feel they’ve earned their new shot to bring home its first state duals title in program history.
Niagara Wheatfield’s new quest begins as the top-seed in Division I and in Pool A with Cicero-North Syracuse (III) and North Babylon (XI) at 9 a.m. Saturday at SRC Arena in Syracuse. The Falcons secured the Section VI title after defeating Williamsville North/East in the Division I final on Jan. 6 at Niagara County Community College, their third sectional title in program history.
“You want to peak at the right time and that’s what they’re doing right now,” Niagara Wheatfield coach Rick Sweney said. “… Every match, every tournament, they’re getting a little bit better, a little bit stronger (and) a little bit smarter. … We’re trying to help each other be the best we can. And if you keep that right mentality, it’s just basically staying healthy and keep doing what you’re doing every time.”
With the extra year comes more experience for the Falcons’ roster of grapplers, who bring a host of wrestlers back to SRC Arena. Chase Richards, Te’Shaun Mathews, Garrett Chase and Joe Cicco all return to the Falcons’ lineup along with fellow veterans in John Fike and Evan Azbell.
The momentum built over the course of the sectional dual championship. After beating Niagara Frontier League opponent Grand Island by 48 points in the semifinal, the Falcons recorded four consecutive takedowns for a 24-0 lead against the Spartans.
This was a strong contrast to the start of the Falcons’ season, which included losing to Brockport by nine points in the season-opening Matthew Marino Invitational Dec. 2 at SUNY Oswego. The Falcons experienced frustration as some competed in various events, such as nationals at Virginia Beach in March, and the extra time hadn’t transferred over to the season yet.
“Team sectionals absolutely showed me what our team could be and what I wanted our team to look like,” said Chase, a junior competing at 138 pounds and enters with a 33-6 record. “We came together. Everyone wrestled their butts off… That’s all I really wanted to see this year, and that’s what I got to see. So, now, it’s just even better to see how we compare to other people in the state.”
In order to prepare for a potential run to states, Sweney said Niagara Wheatfield bolstered its schedule with as many challenging events as possible to know where they are in the state. In addition to competing in Oswego, the Falcons placed fifth at the Linda C. Knuutila Memorial tournament Dec. 15-16 and tied with Webster Thomas for first at the Army Spc. Kenneth W. Haines Memorial tournament two weeks later back in Oswego.
Niagara Wheatfield placed second to Brockport at the 30th Lockport Invitational on Jan. 12, and picked up dual wins against Lew-Port and Kenmore West, in the hopes of clinching a second consecutive Niagara Frontier League title.
“You need to wrestle the competition to get tougher,” Sweney said. “… You learn more from losing sometimes than from going out there and beating a JV kid up or a kid that’s just not that good. You get to practice your moves a little bit but you can do that here in practice.”
While the Falcons have had experience facing Cicero-North Syracuse at the Fulton tournament, North Babylon was a team the program was still studying, along with Section XI wrestling as a whole. With the offseason workouts in their back pocket, even starting a week after states, the Falcons are confident in their chances of winning.
“It’s got to be the whole team,” Sweney said. “It’s not just about getting pins, it’s not getting pinned. It’s not giving up a takedown. Everybody’s got to put into it. When they’re together, all of them are working hard. That’s a whole ‘nother animal. It’s a family thing.”