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3 Polar Bears take first place at state wrestling tourney

Mar. 5—FAIRMONT — The long road of the wrestling season makes its final stop in Huntington each year, and in the grand finale of the 2023 season, the Fairmont Senior Polar Bears etched their name into the history books with a first-place finish and a trio of state champions Saturday.

Elsewhere in Marion County, North Marion High's Noah Hess took home the gold, while East Fairmont High placed two state runners-up and finished in 12th out of the 50 teams that qualified at least one wrestler.

The Polar Bears took the 2023 state title by a healthy margin, totaling 206 points, the next closest team being Independence and Point Pleasant tied at 177.5 points.

"All year long, these kids have wrestled their hearts out everywhere we've been, and we've been pretty successful everywhere we've been," Fairmont Senior head coach Michael Fortier said. "This weekend we knew it was going to be a tight race for the title, and we thought we had a good chance to make a run for it. Everybody had to show up and do their part, and luckily it happened."

The Polar Bears' weekend was highlighted by state championships in three weight classes — Jason Walker at 126, Hunter Spitznogle at 138, and Kolbie Hamilton at 144.

Walker won his title in dramatic fashion, trailing 1-0 to East Fairmont's Blake Ringer until the final seconds of the bout, where a reversal from bottom put the Polar Bear freshman up 2-1 as time expired.

"To be a freshman and win a state title, that's impressive in itself, and it's even more special because that's a kid [Ringer] he's went back-and-forth with all season," Fortier said of Walker. "It was a great Marion County honor, it was two kids from Marion County going at it for a state title, and both freshmen."

Junior Hunter Spitznogle wrestled Doddridge County's Riley Curran for the title at 138 pounds, and the two looked evenly matched through the majority of the bout, tied 4-4 with 1:20 to go in the final period. The pair went out of bounds with 30 seconds remaining, and after the break Spitznogle put up a flurry of points by way of a takedown and a reversal to pull away for an 8-4 state title win.

Kolbie Hamilton, who repeated as state champion this year after taking the title at 138 last year, said he'd given advice to Walker and Spitznogle, both first-time state champs this year.

"I told Spitznogle, took him with me into a dark room and told him to sit down and collect his thoughts," Hamilton said. "I told J-Walk, [Jason Walker] — I pretty much beat him up every day in our room but I told him it was for a reason. I told him it was going to lead him somewhere."

As for Hamilton's own match, the senior matched up with Braxton County's Blayne Jarvis, who took an early 2-0 on a takedown, before Hamilton halved his deficit with an escape.

An escape from bottom put Jarvis ahead 3-1, but a takedown by Hamilton tied things up 3-3. An escape of Hamilton's own gave the Polar Bear his first lead of the match, 4-3, at the end of the second period, but Jarvis tied the match 4-4 seconds into the third period.

Points remained knotted through most of the third period. With the seconds ticking by, an overtime period looked like a possibility as both wresters grappled their way to the edge of the mat. With 17 seconds to go though, Hamilton pulled off a takedown, and became a back-to-back state champion by a score of 6-4.

"That last takedown's when I really felt in control," Hamilton said. "The whole match, you've got to keep pushing the pace. If you don't push the pace you're going to fall into their game, and you're going to fall short."

"It was a tight, tough match but he never gave up," Fortier said of Hamilton. "He kept pushing, kept pushing, and that's the type of kid he is. He always fights for everything, and he's just an outstanding kid."

Hamilton becomes the 15th Polar Bear in school history to earn back-to-back state championships, the most recent wrestler before Hamilton being Zach Frazier, who now plays center for the West Virginia University football team.

"I'm feeling great right now," Hamilton said. "This accomplishment means a lot. I lost someone last year who was very special to me, and I dedicated the last two seasons, training extra hard for him. I'm pretty sure I made him pretty proud."

North Marion's Noah Hess struck gold at 120 pounds, the Huskie sophomore overcame Point Pleasant's Nathan Wood by a score of 6-3 in the final.

"Feels pretty good," Hess said. "I'm just thankful for everything that's happened and all my coaches and my teammates for pushing me to get this far."

After finding himself down 3-0 early, Hess went to work, pushing through six unanswered points that started from an escape from bottom.

"I was down 3-0, and I chose bottom, knew I had to get out, and I did get out. Knew I had to take him down to tie it up," Hess said.

"It wasn't over until it hit zero, knew I just had to hold him down for that long, make sure I stayed low, don't get turned. Once I won, it was pretty nice, it was exciting."

Hess becomes the first North Marion state champion since Kyle Elliott in 2017. After taking third place at 106 pounds as a freshman, the state tournament appearance from a year before helped Hess this time around.

"It gave me a lot more experience," Hess said. "Last year I was a freshman, I didn't really know what was going on. I ended up getting third, which isn't bad but I wish I'd have done better. It gave me a lot of experience for this year, I wasn't as scared or nervous."

East Fairmont's Xaden Willett and Blake Ringer both made it to the finals matches of their respective weight classes, 106 for Willett and 126 for Ringer, the underclassmen each earning the silver medal for their efforts.

"Any time you can bring kids down here and place in the state tournament, it's a big deal," East Fairmont head coach Logan Bowman said. "We've got two guys on the podium this year, and they're both young, a freshman and a sophomore. We'll have both of them back next year, and I think that shows we're heading in the right direction as a program."

Willett, a sophomore, fell via pin in the first period to Independence's Dillon Perdue, who won his third straight state championship at 106.

Ringer nearly had the state title in his grasp before Fairmont Senior's Jason Walker pulled off a last-second reversal.

"Those guys have both been wrestling for all their lives," Bowman said. "For them to make it down here and both be in a finals match when they're so young, it's huge. It's a very tough tournament, it's difficult to place in, let alone make it to the finals. For those two to be so young and do it, it's pretty amazing."

Bowman said the early experience will benefit his group going forward.

"We've got a young core, a group of guys that'll be back next year, and hopefully next year we get more on the podium."

Reach Nick Henthorn at 304-367-2548, on Twitter @nfhenthorn_135 or by email at nhenthorn@timeswv.com.