For the original Tribune Chronicle article, click here – Liberty On the Spot

Joe Simon – Feb 24, 2019

Liberty’s Simi Moananu, top, drives Pymatuning Valley’s Victor Verba to his back during the Division III Beachwood Sectional tournament on Saturday. The Leopards went on to win the program’s first sectional championship.

BEACHWOOD — Liberty wrestling coach Hadi A. Hadi looked to his right and saw an old friend and a lifelong mentor.

The Liberty alumnus glanced across the gym and saw one of his closest friends — also his assistant coach — for nearly 20 years, Ryan Williams.

They all made what he saw in front of him, something Liberty has never seen before, that much more special: a sectional championship.

The Leopards pulled away from Grand Valley in the final round Saturday to win the Division III Beachwood Sectional title, the first sectional championship in school history.

“It’s exciting because Mr. (Don) Lott was here,” said Hadi, referring to his former coach and the person who started the Liberty wrestling program in 1975. “He was so happy, and that made me happy. Hans (Kirr) was here. He was on the runner-up team (in 1984). An alumni and the guy that started the program, that’s kind of cool.”

Liberty’s Kaleb Merrick-Neff, left, wrestles Newbury’s Mitch Sanders during the 195-pound championship match Saturday in Beachwood.

It seemed appropriate the Mustangs were the team that was neck-and-neck with the Leopards.

Grand Valley beat Liberty in a highly contested dual meet earlier this season. The match ended in a tie, but the Mustangs won on criteria.

This time, the Leopards left no doubt. Their 142 points were just better than GV’s 136. Liberty qualified seven wrestlers for next week’s district tournament in Garfield Heights, while the Mustangs also had seven advance. The top four finishers in each weight class moved on to the district.

It was more than just about advancing for Liberty.

“The feeling of winning the first sectional tournament in the history of Liberty, it’s just something crazy,” said 138-pound captain Tyler Wilson, one of three runners-up for the Leopards. “I knew we had it in our team, but just to do it, it’s like a dream come true.

The Liberty wrestling team celebrates its sectional championship at Beachwood High School on Saturday. The sectional title was the first in the program’s history.

“It’s a big step (for the program),” he added. “It’s going to help us through the next few years to have the dedication to do it again.”

One of the keys for Liberty, which led GV by just four points entering the final round, was winning one-on-one matchups with the Mustangs.

The teams matched up on three occasions, with the Leopards taking two of them. Junior Dylan Young, who won, 11-2, and senior Zion Matlock, who pinned his opponent, each secured key victories that ultimately helped put Liberty over the top.

“Just go out there and do what I know, don’t go too fast,” said Matlock, also a captain, of his mindset before the match. “It’s real big (to win this title).”

Grand Valley coach Ross Tice was hoping to come away with the championship, but he couldn’t help but be happy with qualifying seven for the district tournament (the most in recent memory, he said).

The Mustangs endured a rough week, battling illnesses that spread throughout the team. Tice hopes a week of rest will bring out a resurgence at the district tournament on Friday and Saturday.

“They wrestled tough,” he said. “It’s a tough time in the room when everybody’s flat and sick. Then coming out today and making a run at it was pretty exciting. … Definitely looking forward to this week, just to get some different looks. Some guys in the room are traveling and practicing other places, so we can get everybody (a different look). It’s not just the same guys over and over again.”

Hadi and the Leopards are hoping for more breakthroughs in the coming weeks.

Liberty hasn’t advanced a wrestler to the state tournament since 2001. It has a handful of wrestlers ranked in the top 20 in the state, and after claiming a sectional title, Hadi believes the Leopards are ready to take another step. The top four placers in each weight class at the district tournament move on to state.

For one day, at least, they’re going to enjoy being sectional champions.

“There are just those certain levels that you want to reach,” Hadi said. “It helps promote your program, being a sectional championship team in a program that’s been around for 43 years, since 1975, that’s never won it and had amazing teams. In the 1980s, they were amazing. I remember being in junior high and watching them.

“It’s exciting,” he later added about also being an alumnus. “I’m coaching with other alumni. Me and Mr. Lott, I can’t explain it, he’s been a father figure to me since I was in middle school. For him to be in the room with me every day and for him to be a part of this, to sit in the corner at 81 years old and coach kids through matches. The kids love him. It’s just awesome. I’m so happy for him. I’m more happy for him than anyone.”