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Battery Creek senior DeAndre Johnson was so displeased with his showing in the USMC 2011 Seahawk Slam wrestling tournament that he set his sights on authoring an entirely different story Saturday in the 2012 edition of the holiday tournament hosted at Hilton Head Island High School.
And a much happier ending it was.
After an eighth-place finish in the 152-pound weight class in last year's Slam, Johnson fought his way to the championship of the 160-pound class Saturday, finishing the impressive turnaround with a dominating 10-3 victory over Summerville's Anthony Collins.
The triumph capped a performance that saw Johnson dominate his opponents with three consecutive pins en route to the finals and one of the most rewarding individual accomplishments of his wrestling career.
"The finish last year just made me want to come back this time and show everyone that I could win a championship against this type of field," Johnson said moments after his arm was raised as the 160-pound champion of the 30-team tournament field. "I'm proud that I came back here and accomplished this goal. I didn't get to wrestle everyone I wanted in my draw, but to win an event like this is tough to do."
Considering a field that included some of the top teams in the state and region as well as all five of Beaufort County's public high schools, tough might be a considerable understatement.
In fact, eight area wrestlers entered Saturday's second day of competition with a shot at a championship and only half managed to navigate their way to the finals unscathed.
Hilton Head Island High School's Label Lewis protected his No. 1 seed all the way to the finals of the 132-pound division before falling to Union Grove's Griffin Higginbotham and Bluffton's Levi Joly, the No. 2 ranked wrestler in the state in the 113-pound division, matched that feat before succumbing to Lexington's Jackson Myers in his finals match. Also reaching the finals was Beaufort High's heavyweight Tyler Wilson who fell to the top seed Tre Long of Eastside High School in a hard-fought 6-2 battle.
Yet when the dust settled, it was Johnson who erased one bad memory by creating a far better one that will last for some time as he and his Battery Creek teammates look toward region play after the new year.
"Last year I just came out a little nervous knowing how good the field was," Johnson said. "It's hard to explain, but this time I was much more confident. I wrestled like I had something to prove."
For his part, Joly led a strong showing by the Bobcats as four of the eight Bluffton grapplers in the field made it to semifinal action on Saturday. While Joly came up short in his battle with Myers, the state's top-ranked 113-pounder, his coach sees it as the right step toward a run at a state title in a couple months.
"That was No. 1 and No. 2 competing against each other," coach John Hollman said. "I'm sure they're going to see each other again, so we just need to look at some film and find ways to close the gap a little bit."
Given the showing of his other wrestlers, Hollman was pleased with the performance of the players he brought over the bridge for the annual tournament. In fact, Bluffton had three athletes competing for a third-place finish in the tournament and saw scrappy 106-pounder Nick Snead win his third-place bout, 4-2 over Eastside High School's Zane Mitchell.
Talon Seitz fell just short of third by losing to Nathan Pristavec 5-3, and fellow Bobcat Mike Meyerink suffered the same fate in the 160-pound class in a loss to Dustin Ballard.
"To bring eight kids and have four finish among the top four in their class means it was a very productive day for us," Hollman said. "And as a team, to finish just outside the top 10 with this field and only eight wrestlers is a great accomplishment."
Also claiming a third-place victory Saturday was Beaufort High's Clint Wright, who energized the large crowd by pinning Divonte Reaves of Glynn Academy during the second period of their contest. Whale Branch's heavyweight grappler Max Ford took his third-place match in overtime against Camden's Alex Washington.
Host Hilton Head Island's performance was certainly topped by Lewis' run to the finals, where he locked in a tight battle with Higginbotham before succumbing to a pin just past midway of the final period.
"He had a couple things go against him early and it just threw him off his game," Hilton Head Island coach Mike Newton said. "But it's a good experience. I don't want undefeated wrestlers. I want wrestlers that are at the top of their game at the end of the season when it matters most."
As a whole, Newton said the tournament, in addition to being the chief annual fundraiser of the year for the Hilton Head wrestling program, provided a great test for area teams to gauge where they are compared to elite competition.
"This tournament keeps getting bigger and better, and it will get better next year," Newton said. "It's great for the area teams to play this type of field and not have the expense of traveling very far to do it. It's a real plus for everyone that competed this weekend."
That goes double for Battery Creek's Johnson who rid himself of one bad memory by creating a much better one.