Soto, Decker WMass champs
Frontier's Saul Soto (top) is in a standoff with Hampshire finals foe Matt Carrier during his 12-9 WMass title victory in the 220-pound championship bout Saturday at the WMass Division III Wrestling Championships at Holyoke High School.
Athol freshman Merritt Decker is closing in on a pin over Hampden Charter School's Omar Velez in the 130-pound title bout Saturday duirng the WMass Division III Wrestling Championships action at Holyoke High School. Decker made quick work of Velez with at 1:30 of the first to earn his WMass title. Recorder/Trish Crapo
HOLYOKE — What a difference a year made for Frontier Regional School’s Saul Soto and Athol High School’s Merritt Decker.
One year after making a hasty exit from the WMass Division III Wrestling championships, the two battled their way through the field Saturday and completed a drastic turnaround with championship victories at Holyoke High School.
The event was made into a single-day affair after Friday’s opening-day snowstorm postponement. After nearly 10 hours of wrestling narrowed the field down to the final two combatants at each of the 14 weight classes, the five area programs had four remaining wrestlers. Soto (220 pounds) and Decker (113) were joined in the finals by Franklin County Technical School’s Brett Bean (145) and Kyle Laffey (160), although both Eagle wrestlers suffered losses in the finals, including Laffey, who had not lost all season and suffered one of the biggest finals upsets.
Soto and Decker were awarded No. 1 seeds and lived up to it. The finals began with the lowest weight classes, and it was Decker’s 113-pound class that went second as a packed gymnasium looked on. His finals foe was Hampden Charter School of Sciences’ Omar Velez, who Decker had already beaten this season. Decker, a freshman, appeared at the WMass championships last year but went 0-2 for Day 1 elimination. He said he put in a lot of work to improve in the offseason, working out at Doughboy Wrestling Club in Lowell, and it paid off.
“From worst to first,” Decker said after the win. “It was a lot of hard work and I left Doughboy drenched in sweat every day, but it feels great.”
Decker went 23-6 in the regular season, then finished 4-0 Saturday with three pins. It culminated in the title match against Velez, who he made short work of. Decker jumped out to a 2-0 lead 30 seconds into the match with a takedown of Velez, but Velez was able to get one point back on an escape around the one-minute mark of the first period. Decker took down Velez again, and Velez did not get up again, as Decker earned a pin at the 1 minute, 30 second mark.
“When I went into the finals match, I knew it was going to be tough because last time I wrestled him, it was 4-2,” Decker said. “Once I got the takedown and got control of the match, I knew I had it.”
Things didn’t go quite as quickly for Soto at 220, as he had to go the distance against Hampshire Regional High School’s Matt Carrier in the championship bout, including a wild third period. Soto, who came into the match with a 21-4 record on the season, led 3-2 after two periods. But then the match took an exciting turn when the two combatants combined for 16 points in the two-minute, third period. Soto gained the upper hand midway through the third period and led 10-8 following Carrier’s escape that left both boys standing neutral. Carrier needed a takedown to tie the score in the final 40 seconds, but it was Soto who earned the match-clinching takedown with 10 seconds remaining for a 12-8 lead. He allowed Carrier to escape in the final seconds (rather than risk a miraculous reversal and pin) to wind up with a 12-9 decision.
“That was wild,” an exhausted Soto said afterward. “I’m just getting over a cold and I was out there wheezing, and he was out of breath, too, so we’re just trying to get ahead of each other. I was just trying to get points at the end, but he was resisting everything I did. From previous matches that I’ve seen him wrestle, he’s just a really hard kid to pin. So winning by points is just what I knew I had to do.”
The day did not end so well for Franklin Tech wrestlers Bean and Laffey. Laffey was a big favorite going into the 160 finals against Dean Technical High School’s Justin Perez. Laffey entered at 44-0 on the season, while Perez was 31-11, and Laffey had already earned a pin over Perez this season. But from the outset of the title bout, it appeared things were not going to be easy for Laffey, who continually tried to take Perez down by going low, and the Dean Tech wrestler kept his feet back and kept Laffey at bay. Neither grappler was able to score in the first round, and it appeared to get to Laffey, who was close to throwing up in a trash barrel between the first and second periods.
In the second, Perez chose to start on the bottom and earned the first point of the match with a midpoint escape for a 1-0 lead he took into the third period. Laffey chose to start on the bottom in the third, but Perez opted to allow him the escape before the period started, rather than let Laffey earn two points with a reversal. That meant the match was tied at 1-1 to start the third, and with 1:04 remaining, Perez scored a takedown to take a 3-1 lead. The Dean Tech wrestler allowed Laffey to escape immediately, making it 3-2 in his favor, and it appeared he was headed for the win when Laffey was unable to take him down as the clock ticked down. However, Perez was called for stalling with eight seconds left, giving Laffey a point for the penalty and tying the score at 3-3 at the end of regulation. That set up a 1-minute, sudden-death overtime in which both wrestlers started at neutral, and with 12.7 seconds left in the extra frame, Perez got control of Laffey and picked him up and slammed him down for the two-point takedown and a 5-3 upset victory, handing Laffey his first loss of the season.
“I don’t know if the pressure got to him,” Franklin Tech coach Joe Gamache said. “He had a lot at stake, but the fact that the loss is behind him, hopefully he can use that as motivation to perform better next weekend at States.”
As for Bean, he went into the 145 finals as the underdog against South Hadley High School’s Bobby O’Connell. O’Connell looked the favorite and jumped out to a 9-3 lead after one period, then led 11-3 in the second when able to pin Bean with 29.1 seconds left in the second period.
Anyone finishing in the top four on Saturday qualified for next weekend’s Division III State Meet at Foxborough High School. Fifth-place finishers serve as the alternate should one of the top four not be able to wrestle.
Three area wrestlers finished third at WMass, while two more took fourth, meaning nine area wrestlers will represent the area at the state meet. Franklin Tech’s Pat Lashway came in third at 106, Athol’s Trevor Carey took third at 132, and Mahar Regional School’s Aaron Briggs came in third at 195. Frontier’s Jake Arnold placed fourth at 145, and Franklin Tech’s Jonathan Rawls placed fourth at 220. Tech’s Alex Giurgiu will serve as the alternate at 132 pounds with his fifth-place finish. Franklin Tech’s Tyler Rock (120 pounds) and Graham Lowery (170) joined Athol’s Ryan Hurlbert (152) each finished sixth.