COLUMBUS — The Elyria Pioneers entered the Division I state tournament finals with dreams of a trio of gold medals.
They left empty-handed.
Senior Brendon Fenton (120 pounds) and sophomores Dylan Shawver (113) and Mick Burnett (126) all suffered close decision losses within a 30-minute span Saturday night.
St. Edward sophomore Bryce Hepner — an Avon resident — was Burnett’s opponent and came away with The Chronicle coverage area’s lone state championship.
“It came down to executing,” Pioneers coach Erik Burnett said. “At 113, we didn’t come close to getting any of the tie-ups, and Lucas Byrd is really good at controlling the ties, controlling the action and you need to get your tie-up and you need to make things happen … and we just didn’t. That was pretty much the case across the board. Our kids knew what they needed to do, it was just a matter of being able to do it.”
Shawver, who lost a close battle with Byrd in the state duals quarterfinals, tied the score at 2 early in the third period before Byrd earned another takedown to come away with a 4-3 victory.
“I came into the match thinking I was bigger and that I could go out there and score, but he knew what I liked and he came out stronger and took me down,” Shawver said. “I don’t think I moved my feet enough because he took me down in the third period, which was the difference.”
Fenton was shooting for his third straight state title and stepped onto the mat with plenty of confidence because he had defeated Julian Tagg of Brecksville 3-0 in the district final a week earlier.
“He was just on his offense,” Fenton said. “I tried to stay low but he was getting to my ankles really easy. He’s a great wrestler, a world team member, he’s a great kid … it just sucks that I had to go out like that.”
As Elyria’s third four-time state placer, a three-time state finalist and two-time state champion, Fenton is one of the most accomplished wrestlers in the history of the Pioneers program and in Lorain County.
“It’ll probably take a little bit (to realize what I’ve accomplished),” Fenton said. “I’m just upset right now because I lost and I was going for three. But, yeah, no one’s really done what I did, so once I get over it I’ll be fine and it’ll all be good.”
It was the third straight postseason meeting for Burnett and Hepner, with Hepner coming away with one-point wins in the sectional and district finals.
“I got better from the time sectionals came around to now,” Hepner said. “Usually people think sectionals is where you start coasting and you can’t get any better, but thanks to my coaches I really just hop levels and I think that allowed me to open up the match.”
Hepner finished as the state runner-up last season and said the experience of wrestling on the raised stage on Saturday night helped him the second time around.
“My first time I was a freshman going up against a senior,” he said. “I’m not going to lie, I was a little scared and I was a little apprehensive. The second time, I wasn’t nervous at all.”
Burnett, who has two high school seasons remaining, is hoping he’ll have the chance to see if Hepner’s right.
“I’m excited to see what I can do with my career and if I can make it to another state final,” he said. “Next season I’m super excited, getting Jordan (Crace) in there, getting my brother (Nate) in there, little (Peyton) Fenton … I think we can make a run at it. We had a chance this year and things didn’t really turn out the way we wanted to. But I think next year we legitimately have a chance to win a state title.”
Erik Burnett was impressed by Hepner’s game plan against his son.
“Mick needed to go in and establish some offense and get where he needed to be, but Hepner took that away,” he said. “Hepner took Mick’s offense away from him by not giving him what he wanted.
“So all three of our opponents tonight wrestled incredibly well. They’re all very good to begin with, and they wrestled really well. Our guys didn’t wrestle poorly, they just didn’t execute as good as they needed to do to win tonight.”
The Pioneers finished fifth in the team race, breaking a run of three runner-up finishes. Even with seven state qualifiers, six placers and three finalists, the Pioneers walked away disappointed in their “down” year.
‘Top two in the state the last three years, a state duals runner-up trophy … it was a nice run with a great group of kids, but a lot of those kids graduated,” Erik Burnett said. “We have a great group of kids now, we just didn’t have as many of them this year. So I’m not bummed at all about where we are. Top five in the state, we’re right with the top five teams because the teams behind us are far behind us. I think we made progress. I’m proud of our kids and I’m proud of our effort.”
Mick Burnett and Shawver, wrestling in their first state final, talked about the uniqueness of the state final experience.
“It’s unreal,” Burnett said. “Running out there you think it’s just a regular match, and then you get out there and it’s like, wow, you’re wrestling in the state finals. It’s a little bit hard to control your emotions. But it was a good experience for me.”
“It’s amazing,” Shawver said. “That was fun. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
Elyria fans are hoping — for Burnett and Shawver — that it becomes a three-times-in-a-lifetime experience.
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