Virgil’s regional title, four other state qualifiers highlight day for resilient Wolverines

Published 11:35 am Monday, February 12, 2024

Saturday could not have begun on a more down note for Polk County’s wrestling team.

Freshman standout Efrain Rivera, competing in the 106-pound semifinals at the 1A West Regional tourney in Robbinsville, suffered a serious arm injury in his match with Avery’s Alexandero Ical Tuil, ending his competition.

Rivera had already defeated Tuil twice this season. He had a good shot at a regional title and a high finish at next week’s state tournament in Greensboro. The injury shook the entire Wolverine roster, each also looking to advance.

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But head coach Thomas Hensley has preached the importance of resilience to his team all season, and battle on the Wolverines did. Five Polk County wrestlers qualified for the 1A state tournament, the most since 2020, with 215-pounder Jadyn Virgil winning a regional title, the program’s first since 2011. The Wolverines finished in fifth place in the team standings.

A day to remember for many reasons for Polk County wrestling.

“Really proud of how resilient this group is,” Hensley said. “After Efrain got injured, they could have laid down, but they kept fighting. We have preached resilience all year, and we were excited to see the kids be resilient. At the regional tournament, it is a high-pressure situation, and you have to have resilience to be successful.

“Efrain getting hurt was disappointing, but he will be fine, and will come back stronger. Jim Ollis had something very similar happen to him, breaking his wrist at the regional tournament, but he came back and won state titles his last three years of school. We love him, and he will continue to do great things for our program.”

Virgil’s regional championship is the first for Polk County since Juan Vera and Tyler Philpott accomplished the feat. A 6-2 decision over Mountain Island Charter’s Jamarcus Boyd in the semifinals was the only match that the senior didn’t win by pin, including the final, where he downed East Wilkes’ Tristan Alkire in the first period.

“Jadyn Virgil winning the region is huge,” Hensley said. “This program has grown a lot thanks to him. We are excited to see how he does at the state tournament as well.”

Zalen McCraw also reached the regional final before running into Avery standout Cael Dunn, a defending state champion who is undefeated this season. Dunn won their match with a second-period fall.

The other Wolverine state qualifiers included freshmen Brody Wolfe and Styler Blackwell and sophomore Amon Villarreal. Perhaps no two wrestlers demonstrated Polk’s tenacity more than the freshmen.

After falling to eventual regional champion Cooper Foster of Avery on Friday, another defending state champ, Wolfe won three straight matches Saturday, all via decision, to earn his state tournament berth. The three wrestlers he defeated had a combined record of 95-34.

Wolfe’s run ended in the third-place match as he dropped a 7-3 decision to Mount Airy’s Charlie Smith.

Blackwell, meanwhile, earned a third-place finish with four straight victories on Saturday, battling through the consolation bracket. Blackwell capped the day with a dominant 11-4 decision over Roman Perna of Mountain Island Charter, the same wrestler who defeated Blackwell on Friday evening.

Polk’s other third-place finisher, Amon Villarreal, fell in the semifinals at 120 pounds to eventual champion Alexis Panama of Robbinsville. Villarreal rallied to decision Mount Airy’s Alex Spainhour in the consolation semis, then received a medical forfeit from Starmount’s Ian Jones in the consolation final.

“Brody Wolfe and Styler Blackwell both qualifying was impressive since they’re freshmen, I believe the second and third Polk freshman to ever qualify,” Hensley said. “They won several tough matches throughout the consolation rounds, and showed a lot of grit.

“Amon Villarreal and Zalen were both very impressive. Amon won his quarterfinals match by scoring two takedowns with 25 seconds left against a really good Avery kid. He has worked really hard and has gotten a lot better. Zalen McCraw making the regional finals was great, but also expected. He works hard at everything he does, and deserves to be a champion. He ran into a great wrestler from Avery in the final, but we are excited to see how he does at the state tournament.”

Beyond Rivera’s injury, it also proved a tough Saturday for Polk junior Jacob Ed. The 150-pound standout lost a tough 4-3 decision in the semifinals to Avery’s Mason Bentley, with Bentley scoring a reversal early in the third period to pick up the eventual winning points. Alleghany’s Alexis Nuevo then broke a third-period tie in the consolation semifinals with a third-period escape and takedown to hand Ed a 10-7 decision.

“Jacob Ed nearly qualifying hurt as well,” Hensley said. “He’s a great kid who works really hard. He is another kid who is valuable to our program, and will continue to do great things.”