Right from the start, until he ran off the mat and jumped into his father Pete’s arms, Norwalk’s Ethan Hernandez put on a show.
Picking up a takedown in the final seconds of the first period to get on the board first, he then got an escape and picked up a takedown on a nice ankle pick in the second. That pushed his lead to five in his Division II, 160-pound semifinal match with St. Paris Graham’s Isaiah Stickley.
Up 6-2 entering the third, he never let the Graham junior breath, padding his lead even more en route to 10-3 win,
“Just a lot of emotions right now. I’ve been dreaming of this since I was 5,” said the junior, who is the Truckers’ first finalist since Walt Robertson was second at 135 in 1992. “I never really thought I’d able to say that I’m in the state finals ever — but these last few years have just shown me a lot.”
A year ago he placed third after losing his prelim for the second-straight year. But on Friday, Hernandez carried the momentum from his opening day pin into a 6-5 quarterfinal win over Caldonia River Valley’s Hadyn Danals. He’d beaten the 49-win sophomore earlier in the season.
“My quarters matchup was what I was really worried about,” Hernandez said. “I faced him earlier this year, but he’s a solid kid that knows his fundamentals well. I really wanted to get that first one out of the way today.”
Norwalk’s Gabe Phillips (42-7) dropped his 182 semifinal match 9-7 to Akron Coventry’s Austin Hinzman (36-7) while Alec Maloney (220) lost 8-5 to returning state champion Tyler Stein of Canfield.
But with their quarterfinal wins earlier in the day, paired with Tche Leroux’s pin in the second round of consolations, it marks the first time in the history of Norwalk wrestling it will place four individuals at the state championships in the same season. The Truckers have done three placers once (2016) and two placers six other times (1972, 1975, 1992, 1994, 2015, 2018).
“I knew we had the potential, all year these kids have been battling and they all have incredible records,” Norwalk coach Frank Staley said. “I didn’t know exactly when the wheels would come on from football going to wrestling, but the last four weeks, we couldn’t have looked any better. Personally, I think we peaked at a perfect time. Everyone was right on cue when we got down here.
“We lost a couple tight ones down here that could’ve gone either way, and had a couple draws that maybe would’ve changed some things,” he added. “But overall, what an awesome experience so far.”
Hernandez trailed 4-3 against Danals in the quarterfinals after a second-period takedown, then quickly recovered with a reverse to take the lead for good.
“It’s a dream come true,” he said. “It’s just a blessing to be in the state finals. I don’t know if I’ll ever stop crying about this moment. I’m just truly amazed at what I’ve done. I couldn’t have done it without my parents, coaches and teammates.”
Against Stickley, he gave up all his points on escapes.
“Last time I faced a Graham kid, it didn’t go as well,” Hernandez said. “So it was always in the back of my head that first round that it was time to get payback. My dad was like, ‘Take it to him, don’t let him have any time to think.’ So it just pressure, pressure, pressure.
“I thought it was the best match I’ve wrestled my entire life,” he added.
Bellevue’s Justin Mayes (44-6) won’t get a chance at revenge on Hernandez for the third time in five weeks. He lost 5-3 to three-time state runner-up Ben Pasiuk (43-1) of Carrolton.
“Thank God,” joked Hernandez.
Hernandez, now 53-3, will be an underdog Saturday night. But that’s just fine with him.
“My goal is to give him four runners-up,” he said. “I got to stay humble, keep my head and just wait for 7 p.m. tomorrow.”
“Ethan is one of those guys that works harder than anyone else in the room,” Staley said. “He doesn’t take any days off. He never complains. He’s never sick or hurt, and he always makes weight. He makes great decisions and they pay off.”
Norwalk’s Ethan Phillips lost 11-5 to Newark Licking Valley’s Dylan Dobson in the second round of consolations, seeing his sophomore campaign end at 30-9.
Gabe Phillips, Maloney and Leroux will wrestle for places 3-6 in this morning’s session. The older Phillips beat Mentor Lake Catholic’s Dorian Gridiron 6-5 in the quarterfinals while Maloney pinned Kettering Archbishop Alter’s Nathaniel Armstrong in 3:08.
“We could have a first and three thirds very easily tomorrow,” Staley said. “Being on the board all weekend was kind of the goal. That’s holding true right now.”
Mayes will wrestle for 3-6 for the Redmen after a late 3-1 sudden victory in the quarterfinals.
Bellevue’s Gabe Alda (43-7), a sophomore, lost by pin to defending state runner-up Kyle Rowan (Perry), prior to losing 6-2 to Batavia’s Brandon Sauter in the consolation round.