SPORTS >>Panthers show off prowess on mat
Leader sports editor
When L.J. Tarrant squared off in the championship match at the state wrestling tournament last Saturday in Little Rock, it wasn’t just the No. 1 seed he was battling, but bad memories from his first bout with the guy, as well.
Back on Jan. 19, Tarrant, Cabot’s senior heavyweight, lasted all of 53 seconds against Nick Stewart before the 250-pound nose guard on the Tiger football team pinned him.
From that moment forward, Tarrant and the Cabot coaches focused all their energy on a potential rematch with Stewart at the Arkansas State Wrestling Tournament at the Jack Stephens Center last weekend.
That focus and that energy paid off in a third-round pin for Tarrant over Stewart, as the first-year wrestler captured the heavyweight state title 1:10 seconds into the final round.
Tarrant was one of three Cabot wrestlers to take home state titles in the school’s first year of competitive wrestling. Ninth grader Chavin Scales won at the 103-pound division, while junior Cody Ealy finished off an undefeated season by winning the 125-pound title.
“Compliments to all three of them,” said Cabot coach Brandon Jay, whose Panthers took fifth overall. “These guys are all used to team sports. Having to get out there in front of everybody, having to go six minutes in their first year of wrestling and come out with a state championship is just unbelievable.
“It’s remarkable what they accomplished. ”
While it is indeed true that Scales and Tarrant hadnever wrestled before the season officially began in January, Ealy was a veteran of the mat, having wrestled for the past six seasons in Wisconsin. Ealy moved to Cabot a week into the wrestling season and had little trouble putting his experience to good use. He posted a perfect 16-0 record, and was never challenged.
“The best thing about him is he doesn’t panic,” Jay said. “He slows everything down and gets the position he wants. The kids we have in their first year try to get everything as fast as they can. Cody’ll try it, but if it doesn’t work, he’ll set it up the way he wants.”
Ealy, the top seed at state, cruised through the tournament last weekend, posting four pins in four matches. His title victory over third-seeded Adam Irons of Bentonville took only three minutes, 15 seconds.
“I told Cody, next year these kids are going to be better,” Jay said. “I expect undefeated with him again, because he knows so much, but we need to polish him up on a few things.”
For Scales, the soft-spoken freshman, who entered the tourney as the No. 2 seed, the road to the title came nearly as easy.
The only difficult thing was making his weight. Scales had wrestled at 112 pounds all year, losing only one time to the eventual 112-pound state champion, but opted to drop weight to enter the 103-pound division.
“We knew no one could handle him, strength-wise at that weight,” Jay said.
Still, it wasn’t easy getting there. Scales weighed 111 on Thursday, and had less than 24 hours to shave six pounds to get to the required 105.
“We fought until the last hour to get there,” Jay said. “He had to sacrifice a lot. We ran him on Thursday night and got him to 108. We ran again on Friday and finally got there.”
Scales said the first two matches were mostly a breeze.
“I knew how those guys wrestled, so I pinned them real quick,” he said. “Then I watched a guy from Har-ber beat Tanner Mann of Central, who was one of my toughest opponents this year. That made me all nervous and everything.”
But Scales shook off those nerves and got a pin to reach the finals. He had to settle for a 14-7 decision over top seed Jon Reasoner of Russellville in a match he nearly lost in the second round.
“He almost pinned me in the second round,” Scales said. “He brought my leg up and pulled my head underneath me. I started kicking out because I didn’t want to lose. I finally got control of the match in the third round.”
Jay said Scales’ escape from that near-pin was typical of his success this season. Other than Ealy, Jay added, Scales probably has the best mat presence of all his teammates, and that he can get out of a lot of moves just with his power.
“He’s not up to Cody’s technique level, but if you watch him, you’d think he’d been wrestling three or four years. He knows what he’s doing out there, and he knows how to get out of a bad situation.”
As much as Tarrant and Jay had been gearing toward Stewart the past two months, it was his semifinal match that was the one that gave him the most trouble. Tarrant escaped that match with Mountain Home’s Coty Cox with a narrow 3-2 decision.
“He was a really big guy,” said Tarrant, who will play football for Harding University this fall. “He was hard to take down so at the end, I was just trying to do smart wrestling. It was 2-2 going into the third round and I got an escape [for the winning point].”
That set up the rematch with Stewart, who Tarrant said might just have gone into the match overconfident, given their first meeting and the fact that Stewart had easily pinned everybody in the early rounds. But Jay said he noticed something different even before the title bout began.
“I looked at him right before he got on the mat, and I knew something was going to happen,” Jay said. “I knew it wasn’t going to be a 53-second [pin] again.”
Tarrant said he thought Stewart going unchallenged through the first three rounds probably worked to his advantage. By the time they reached the second round, Tarrant said, Stewart was beginning to tire.
Something else that worked to Tarrant’s advantage, he said, was the loss he suffered two weeks earlier in the CAC meet — his only other loss of the season. He had a bad ankle that day, and had already wrestled earlier, but neither he nor Jay were making any excuses.
“I wrestled stupid that night,” he admits. “I just wasn’t thinking right. But I really think that could have been a plus and got my attention.”
THE MIND GAME
As happy as Jay is with all three of his champions, he seems most impressed by Tarrant’s feat, coming as it did against his former vanquisher in a sport that is largely a matter of mental toughness.
“You think about L.J. getting beat by Nick in 53 seconds and the thought process that he had to go through right before he got on that mat again,” Jay said. “He’s probably thinking: ‘This guy has whooped me, and it wasn’t even a close one. This guy manhandled me the last time.’
“And it’s not like football, where there’s 10 other guys out there with you. Everybody’s looking at you; it’s just you and another guy. That’s got to be a lot of mental draining. He definitely had some pressure.”
All three agree that the sport requires enormous mental fortitude. Scales admits that the first time he got on the mat in an actual match, it was the hardest thing he’d ever done. Especially, he added, when the guy you’re going up against has experience, and many of the state’s wrestlers already had a year under their belts.
“He can work you down, but you just have to push yourself,” Scales said.
Scales also said he had his doubts early on when he realized just how much conditioning was required. He freely admitted he had second thoughts.
“Big time,” he said. “But it seems worth it now. On match days, I couldn’t wait until school was over, I was so excited.”
Ealy, who would know better than anybody, agreed that mental conditioning was every bit as important as physical stamina.
“You give up that early takedown and you go down 2-0, you got it in your mind that you’re down and you have to come back,”
Ealy said. “You can’t panic. You’ve got to stay calm and be confident. If you lose that confidence, you’re going to lose that match.”
That is not to underestimate the grueling physical nature of the sport. Six minutes may not sound like a lot of time, Jay said of the three two-minute round matches, but it can drain you quickly.
“One thing about our kids,” he said, “I thought they were stronger and in better condition than any kids in the state. The third period, our guys were walking around and jumping. Their kids had their hands on their knees. They were tired.
“But our guys had to do a lot of hard work to get there.”