If last weekend’s performance at the annual state wrestling tournament is any indication, the newest Richland District 1 programs are on the right track.
Three items of note serve as evidence. First, was the heavyweight championship run by Keenan senior Matthew Johnson in Class 2A. Second, Columbia’s Trey Leonard became the first Capital to come away with a state place finish – fourth at 171 pounds in Class 2A. Third, Lower Richland’s Marvin Smith became the first Diamond Hornet to place – 3rd at 189 in Class 3A – in 14 years.
Technically, Keenan and Lower Richland are not new programs, but have been revived in recent years after being shelved. Columbia’s program is in its third season.
Johnson’s win over Chesterfield’s Colby Hodges capped an amazing 31-1 run in his first season in the sport.
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“To tell you the truth, I don’t know how he pulled it off, but he did,” said Keenan coach Marlin Taylor. “He came up to me at the start of the season and told me he want to give it a try. I told him it was going to take a lot of hard work and dedication because he had no previous experience.”
Now, Johnson stands as a beacon for all the start-up programs in the Midlands, inside and outside of District One.
“I don't think a lot of people really understand what Matt did really means,” said Taylor. “This was his first and last wrestling season and to go 31-1 and win the state title is pretty amazing. I think that by his winning we should be able to get more kids to come out next year. I’m pleased with the direction that the program is going. Are we where I want us to be? Not yet, but I feel like we are on the right track to really push for that region title and one day a state title.”
Johnson’s improbable championship season is the stuff dreams are made of, and can only serve as inspiration for the large number of athletes new to the demanding sport.
Ironically, Keenan once had a much higher wrestling profile before the program went dormant. In fact, Johnson was the seventh Raider to make it to a state championship match, but the first to do so in 31 years. The previous Keenan state finalists were Steve Vitali (112 in 1972), Emanuel Griffin (158 in 1973), William Taylor (heavyweight in 1974), Andrew Bibbs (138 in 1978), Easton Smalls (126 in 1978) and Robert Griffin (112 in 1978).
Leonard had a 2-2 state report card, winning his first-round opener by a 13-6 count against Bamberg-Ehrhardt’s David McCully before dropping a tough 6-4 decision to eventual champion Maurice Morris in the semifinals. He bounced back to second a Top 4 finish by a second-period pin against North Central’s Dillon Robertson in the consolation semifinals. Leonard lost a wild 11-10 decision to Liberty’s Joseph Taylor in the consolation finale.
Smith ended a long state tournament place-finish drought for Lower Richland by claiming a consolation championship with a gutsy 3-0 run after he dropped a tough 3-2 decision in the first round to Battery Creek’s Tyler Ellis. Smith picked up a forfeit pass in the first consolation round, and then assured himself of a Top 4 spot by dominating Lugoff-Elgin’s Max Fowler 12-2 in the consolation semifinals. He bagged third place and a bronze medal by handling Bluffton’s Andrew Dean, 11-4, in the consolation championship match. The last LR entry to medal at state was John Spain, a second-place finisher at 103 in 1995.
LR, of course, was once one of the top programs in the state during the 1970s. The Diamond Hornets won four straight all-classification state titles (1972-75) and produced 12 individual state champions (out of 19 finalists) between 1972 and 1978. In all, 13 Lower Richland wrestlers have produced 15 state championship match wins, but there have been no new entries since 1990.
Lower Richland’s state champions include James Hayes (275 in 1989 and 1990), Rick Conners (158 in 1973 and 1974), Darnell Brown (188 in 1972), Tom Smith (135 in 1972), Stanley Johnson (129 in 1973, Steve Potts (122 in 1973), Charles Taylor (141 in 1974), Mike Yonkers (135 in 1974), Keith Shannon (141 in 1975), John Monroe (129 in 1975),. Thomas Alexander (122 in 1975), Ike Anderson (108 in 1975) and Robert Hemmingway (155 in 1985).