BLOOMINGTON -- Up until the final buzzer, the Mercer County wrestling team believed.|
So when the outcome became official, the Golden Eagles shed some tears of disappointment.
A few moments later, smiles covered their faces Saturday following a 35-25 loss to top-ranked Dakota in the Class 1A dual-team state championship match at the U.S. Cellular Coliseum.
"There's only one team better than us," said Mercer County 160-pound senior Devin Morford. "I feel pretty good about it."
Throughout this season, Mercer County, which needed a fall in the finale for any chance of the title, wrestled with a belief that it was the best team in the state.
No matter what setbacks the Golden Eagles encountered, they carried a confidence that pushed them one win away from the state title.
After the dual was completed, they took pride in knowing they were the second-best team in the state.
"Only one team can say they're better than us," Mercer County 152-pound senior Zach Nelson said. "We're looking at the positives."
The positives are countless.
Entering postseason ranked fifth in the Illinois Best Weekly Class 1A poll, the Golden Eagles topped the fourth- and seventh-ranked teams on their way to the finals. They became the first local small-school team to win back-to-back trophies since Riverdale in 1992-93.
Mercer County also had its best finish in program history.
"We all fought hard and battled to the end," Nelson said. "That's all that matters."
Unfortunately, the Golden Eagles fell short. A six-wins-in-seven-bouts stretch gave Mercer County at 26-16 lead with four matches left. Dakota, which won its second title in program history, then won the final four by fall, decision, forfeit and major decision.
The Indians avenged a 36-30 loss to Mercer County on Dec. 1.
"This was a different team than we saw in December," Mercer County coach Jeremy Finch said. "I've been impressed with the way they've been wrestling. Coming into this, they were probably the favored team. But you know what, we earned a little respect."
Down 12-0 after three bouts, the Golden Eagles (24-4) started their roll. Nelson, Morford, Kisner, Jon Ricke (170), Matt Weeks (182) and Mason Weeks (195) each earned victories to give Mercer County a lead.
Always a consistent strength this season, the upperweights scored 26 points -- the Golden Eagles had a team point deducted late -- to build a lead. However, the inability to snag additional bonus points and win any swing matches proved detrimental.
"We needed to get those, but we knew those matches would be tough," Finch said. "Those were toss-up matches where they had the advantage and won those."
With heavy hitters up and down the lineup and six state medalists, the Indians never allowed Mercer County to get control or keep momentum.
"They're the toughest team in the state," Morford said. "They have really good wrestlers."
Mercer County proved it has some, too.
"This was a great dual that comes down to the last match," Finch said. "Anytime you're wrestling for a state title and you have an opportunity to win it in the last match, that's exciting. I'm proud of the way the kids fought. This group of kids showed they will fight. We came up a little short."
The goal all along was a state title. One dual kept that from happening.
"This isn't what we wanted," Finch said. "But when they look back, they're going to appreciate what we have."
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