Down 4-1 in his championship match at the WIAA State Individual Wrestling Championships Saturday, freshman Josh Bird reassured Burlington High School coach Jade Gribble that a comeback was coming.
Bird delivered in the Division 1 final at 120 pounds, rallying to tie Robert Lee of Kaukauna 6-6 at the end of regulation, then getting a sudden-victory takedown in overtime to win 8-6.
Waterford senior Cody Nannemann didn’t have to wrestle in the 160-pound Division 1 final to win his first state championship. His opponent, senior Mitchell Cole of Ashwaubenon, suffered a knee injury in his semifinal match and Nannemann won the Division 1 title at 160 pounds on an injury default.
Bird and Nannemann are the first state champions from Racine County since Lane Olson of Horlick and Justin Schmalfeldt of Burlington won Division 1 titles in 2006. Bird is the fourth Burlington wrestler to win a state title, following Tom Fitzpatrick (1983, 1985), the late Mike Kramer (1994) and Schmalfeldt.
Nannemann is the third Waterford state champion, following Pedro Perez (1997, 1998) and Brad Kamrath (1997).
Four other Racine County wrestlers earned medals Saturday. Waterford senior Kody Azarian (120 pounds) and Burlington sophomore Ben Hornickle (113 pounds) finished fourth, and Burlington senior Brody Fitzpatrick (138 pounds) and Horlick senior Lightning Hernandez (145 pounds) finished fifth.
Bird was taken down early and almost put to his back by Lee, the champion at 113 pounds last year as a freshman, but he worked his way out of the jam. He was in the down position to start the second period and trailed 4-1. Bird was to start down again to start the third period and that’s when he reassured Gribble.
“It wasn’t in our plans to go down, because Lee is a hammer on top,” Gribble said of Bird, the son of former UW-Parkside All-American Kevin Bird. “I asked Josh if he could get away; he looked at me and said ‘yeah.’”
Bird got the escape, then took down Lee to tie the match at 4-4. Bird let Lee escape, then took him down again to take a 6-5 lead. In the final stages of regulation, Gribble said Lee almost got a reversal, but earned an escape to force overtime.
About 30 seconds into the one-minute overtime period, Bird (44-3) ended the match with an outside single-leg takedown. Gribble said Bird is believed to be the first Racine County freshman to win a state title.
“I just knew I put in a lot of hard work and it would eventually pay off,” Bird said. “(Lee) was pretty close (to a reversal) and he had me worried, but I just knew if I could hang on, it would go in my favor. I kept pushing the pace and (Lee) broke mentally and physically.”
For Gribble, it couldn’t get any better. The Demons wrestle in the WIAA Team State Tournament next weekend, they qualified a school-record eight wrestlers for the state individual tournament and the trio of medalists is also a school record.
“It was definitely exciting,” Gribble said.
Nannemann, who finished 45-5, found out about a half hour before the final that Cole would not be able to compete. Nannemann was still extremely happy to win the gold medal.
“It was a long road to the championship match,” said Nannemann, who allowed just two points in the three tournament matches. “It feels awesome. It was disappointing I didn’t wrestle in the final, but I felt I deserved it working my way there.”
Wolverines coach Nick Weinkauf said Nannemann earned every accolade he’s gotten this year.
“Cody has been all business,” Weinkauf said. “He had a couple setbacks at regional and sectionals, but he kept the right mind-set.”
Azarian, who finished 45-5, won his first consolation semifinal match by forfeit over freshman Zach Miller of Wauwatosa East/West (41-8) because of injury. In the third-place match, junior Chase Farr of Bay Port (47-2) caught Azarian in a cradle and pinned Azarian in 2:10. Azarian finished third last year.
Hornickle, who finished 36-5, won a 5-1 decision over freshman Eddie Smith of Sauk Prairie (42-11) in the consolation semifinals, then lost to freshman Collin Kraus of Stoughton (47-7) on an 8-2 decision in the third-place match. Hornickle matched his finish from last year.
Fitzpatrick, who finished 37-6, lost his consolation semifinal on a tight 5-4 decision against senior Jake Cain of Middleton (52-2). Fitzpatrick came back in the fifth-place match to win a 5-3 decision over senior Brook Whitehead of Wausau East (44-8).
Hernandez, who finished 36-6, lost to senior Mitch Berenz of Hartland Arrowhead on a 10-3 decision. In the fifth-place match, Hernandez won on an injury default over senior Travis Smith of Milwaukee Bradley Tech/Carmen, the state champion at 138 last year. Smith was hurt early in the second period of his consolation semifinal match against Jordan Gundrum of West Bend East.