LANCASTER — After a runner-up finish against Lancaster last winter, the Starpoint Spartans were determined to rewrite the script when they punched their ticket to the 2023 NYSPHSAA Section VI Division I and II Dual Meet Championships. And thanks to a program-wide effort Saturday, the Spartans brought some hardware and glory back to campus in Pendleton.
In what was an all Niagara County affair for the Division I finals, the Spartans (20-0) defeated Niagara Wheatfield (11-1), 45-18, in front of a packed crowd inside the Russell J. Salvatore Field House on the campus of Lancaster High School. With the victory, the Spartans will now head to Syracuse Jan. 28 and compete in the NYSPHSAA Dual Meet Championships for a second consecutive year.
Using the word “special” to describe Saturday’s team effort, Starpoint head coach Steve Hart couldn’t stop smiling and had a memorable moment as he was lifted onto the shoulders of his joyous group of Spartan wrestlers after defeating the Falcons.
“It’s a special day in Starpoint,” said Hart, who gave all the credit to his wrestlers and his entire coaching staff for their latest collective effort. “We put a lot of work in over the last five or so years and it’s paying off right now. These kids are working hard. They’re bought in, they’re focused and that’s the important part.”
From the start of their 55-18 quarterfinal win against Clarence, the Spartans were — as Hart described — “dialed in.” And, like its name-sake, Starpoint attacked, winning 22 of their 26 combined matches against the Red Devils and Amherst (70-6) to advance to the finals with a sense of authority.
After coming up short in the title match last year, those like junior Gage LaPlante — who defeated Niagara Wheatfield’s Joseph Cicco in the 172-pound finals on a 15-0 technical fall — were glad
“We came back and did what needed to be (done,)” said LaPlante, who also finished eighth in the 160-pound bracket at the Powerade Invitational on Dec. 30 in Canonsburg, Pa. “It just shows that we worked harder than everybody else. “We go through the grind every single day and we’re just working hard.”
Hart also praised other Spartan wrestlers like upperclassmen Zach Caldwell and Derek Kneeppel, freshman Kole Haseley and junior James Leuer Jr. for their strong performances. Leuer Jr. recorded his 100th career win Saturday.
“I just hope that luck stays on our side and that we stay healthy and that we keep working hard,” said Hart, whose Spartans are currently ranked second in New York State among all Division I teams.
Despite losing in the finals, Saturday was still a strong performance from Niagara Wheatfield. Currently ranked sixth in the state among all Division I teams, head coach Rick Sweeney said the team accomplished its goal of finishing in the finals, even dealing with injuries as the day progressed. In the finals, freshman John Fike (189), senior Casey Robinson (285) and both Tremell (132) and Te’Shaun (138) Mathews won in the finals against the Spartans. Earlier, in the semifinals, the Falcons defeated Niagara Falls, 27-21, in what was one of the most exciting duals of the day.
“Overall, I’m happy with our kids and we went for it and we adjusted,” said Sweeney, praising the entire team’s performance. “We talked about it instead of just going straight up (the bracket), we bumped kids up… The kids wrestled well today and I’m very proud of them.” and we talked about it instead of just going straight up (the bracket), we bumped kids up and stuff trying to win it and once we found out we weren’t going to win it, we just went with what we had. The kids wrestled well today and I’m very proud of them.”
After taking home the Division II title last winter, Newfane’s attempt at going back-to-back came up short. The Panthers (15-5) lost to top-seeded Chautauqua Lake (18-1) in the finals, 40-31. After losing the first five matches against the Thunderbirds, the Panthers picked up wins from Brayden Kellison-Neglia (102), JJ Lucinski (110), Aidan Gillings (132), Ayden Buttery (138) and Miguel Salas (145) to trim the deficit to 36-31. Then, in the 152-pound finals, Chautauqua Lake’s John Watson defeated Newfane’s Collin Doxey to secure the win. Newfane head coach Matt Lingle was pleased with the team’s effort, especially after having to adjust the lineup with two wrestlers declared out prior to the start of the event.
“We were kind of scrambling and our kids showed up so that was great to see them understand the amount of pressure that we were under and to wrestle to their abilities — and above them at some points, which was good to see,” said Lingle. “The (finals is) what we kind of expected. They have really, really great upperweights and we knew that our lowerweights had to battle back and they did and kept their heads in it. And, we got it to the last match, so that’s awesome.”
Moving ahead, Lingle hopes the team has gained more experience as the postseason run continues. Saturday, he said, was one of those great experiences.
“We’re battle-tested and what we came here to do is to get them prepared for the post-season individually,” said Lingle. “That’s our goal now.”
In the semifinals against Southwestern, Buttery recorded his 100th career win with Newfane. Lingle predicted the sophomore will have “a lot more success to come.”
Niagara Falls rounded out the Division I teams representing Niagara County and finished in third place for a second consecutive year by defeating Amherst, 54-21. Jaden Crumpler (138) and Amarfio Reynolds (132) both won all three of their matches.
Wilson participated in the Division II bracket but lost to Falconer in the quarterfinals (65-11) and then lost to Southwestern (50-24.)
Joe Kraus can be reached via email at email@example.com or on Twitter @ByJoeKraus.