Elyria junior Matt Zuckerman has made a habit of beating the odds.
He did it again last weekend, putting together a classic performance at the Division I district tournament at Perrysburg to earn his third straight state tournament appearance.
“He’s hard-nosed, he’s gritty, he gets after it,” Pioneers coach Erik Burnett said. “Matt had an extensive offseason last year and you’re hoping that it’s going to culminate in some hardware in March. He’s gunning for it, he’s working hard, he’s working smart and it would be awesome for him to realize his goal.”
Zuckerman will be one of 22 area wrestlers competing in the OHSAA state tournament this weekend. Action begins tonight at Value City Arena in Columbus.
Many people doubted Zuckerman would be among the contingent heading south. His district draw at 138 pounds put him up against a pair of wrestlers he suffered losses to this season and a hammer was guaranteed to be waiting in the consolation semifinal.
But Zuckerman went out and avenged both defeats — including a semifinal victory over Olmsted Falls senior Jihad Salti, who is ranked No. 9 in the state — to reach the district final and guarantee a state tournament berth.
“It just felt so good to finally beat those guys that had beaten me in the past,” said Zuckerman, who began wrestling in the Midview biddy program in second grade before moving to the Burnett Trained Wrestling club in fourth grade. “It was on my mind the whole week because district was coming up and everybody was telling me, ‘You have to beat those guys that already beat you,’ and ‘You have to turn it on or you might not make it out.’ The pressure was hard for me because if you lose (earlier in the top bracket) you know you have to face either (Brecksville’s Marco) Regalbuto or (Fremont Ross’ Lamonte) Chapman and you probably don’t make it out. So I had to win.”
After an 11-0 major decision over Strongsville’s Ben Bickle, Zuckerman found himself facing Ashland junior Austin McNamara. The pair had faced off in the regional final of the dual team tournament, with McNamara coming away with a 12-2 major decision.
“After that loss, everything changed for me — my whole demeanor and everything,” Zuckerman said. “The next day in the practice room, I was like, ‘We have to get back to business.’ That match shouldn’t have been like that in my home gym. He embarrassed me, so when I got back in the practice room I worked even harder and I knew he was going to be in my district.”
Zuckerman put on a clinic in the return match. Takedowns were followed by nearfalls and when the final whistle sounded, he walked off the mat with a 10-1 major decision.
“He didn’t wrestle a great match in that dual meet with Ashland,” Burnett said. “It just seemed like every which way he turned he ended up going toward his back in that match. He got caught in a couple crazy situations where he gave up bunches of points. Four-pointer here, five-pointer there and, boom, you’re getting majored. So he knew that if he stayed out of those sticky situations he could win … but he just kept piling up the points.”
Next up was Salti, who had beaten Zuckerman the previous week in the sectional final. Zuckerman had been awarded a last-second reversal and a 6-5 victory in that match, but the officials conferred, changed the reversal into a loss-of-control point and Salti scored a takedown in overtime for the win.
Again Zuckerman left no doubt in the district matchup, putting on an offensive show for an 8-2 victory.
“Erik told me before every one of my matches, ‘It doesn’t have to be close,’” Zuckerman said. “I listened to him and left everything on the mat. He told me to try to score 10 points because if you score 10 points, you should win the match. So my goal for the whole weekend was to try and score 10 points on each kid.”
Burnett credits Zuckerman’s mental toughness coupled with his coachability for the turnaround victories.
“We always tell a kid, ‘Hey, you can make mistakes, just don’t make the same one twice,’” Burnett said. “Salti was taking him down with underhooks (at the sectional) … so Matt worked real hard on making sure he kept his elbow in and not giving the underhook up, and that took part of the kid’s offense away. If you can take a guy’s weapons away — and make it your weapon — you’re going to have success.”
It was just the latest in a string of eyebrow-raising moments for Zuckerman over the last three years.
He grinded out a state berth at 106 pounds as an unknown freshman in an Elyria lineup chock-full of superstars. Last season, he was pushed up to the 132-pound weight class because of an influx of freshmen and somehow found his way to Columbus again despite being one of the most undersized wrestlers in the state.
“Last year they said I was too small and wouldn’t even make the lineup, so to go out and make it to state was amazing,” Zuckerman said. “It felt great to show those guys two years in a row — they doubted me and I went out and did it.”
This weekend, Zuckerman is hoping that the third time truly is the charm and that he’ll finish his high school season standing on the podium as a state placer. It won’t be easy, as there are three nationally ranked wrestlers — St. Edward’s Bryce Andonian (No. 11), Cincinnati LaSalle’s E’lan Heard (No. 12) and Wadsworth’s Luke Baughman (No. 15) — in his bracket.
“It’s crazy to even think that I made it down at this weight class knowing how tough these kids are and knowing that I’m competing with these guys,” Zuckerman said. “I remember Luke Baughman majored me in the state duals last year and I just want to go after him (in a potential quarterfinal matchup) and show him that I was not that bad. I was just small and I’m finally the size that I should be.”
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