By Richard Polen
Globe Sports Writer
NEOSHO, Mo. —
Under the bright lights of Mizzou Arena, with a state championship at stake, Christian Lopez seized the moment — a moment years in the making.
His 3-2 victory by ultimate tiebreaker over Jordan Moffett of McDonald County clinched Neosho’s third Class 3 state wrestling title in the past four years — a co-championship with Kearney — and ended a gut-wrenching, roller-coaster weekend for the Wildcats at the MSHSAA Wrestling Championships in Columbia.
Lopez, a senior who wrestled at 220 pounds, had lost to Moffett the first three times the two wrestled each another this season. Lopez then ended Moffett’s unbeaten season with a victory in the finals of the district tournament one week earlier at Willard.
“The thing was, Moffett is a defensive wrestler,” Lopez said. “I’ve wrestled him ever since youth wrestling. I starting working on him during districts, working on using my offense against him.
“It was just always us in youth wrestling, in different tournaments, and our friendship built up,” he said. “We knew each other’s moves, each other’s stance. He beats me, I beat him. It’s just a back-and-forth situation.”
Before Lopez could reach the final, though, he had to face unbeaten Jarad Sheppard of Hillsboro in Friday night’s semifinals. Lopez scored a 3-1 decision in sudden victory, and Sheppard went on to take third place.
Against Moffett, the match was tied 1-1 at the end of regulation. Each wrestler scored a point with escapes in overtime before Lopez ended the match and ignited a celebration among the Neosho faithful.
“It was exciting to win it, my brother (Neosho assistant coach Josh Sonis) picking me up,” Lopez said. “Seeing my coaches tear up out of joy. Not just my winning a state championship, but the team. We all did it together.
“A lot of people believed in me, had faith in me,” he said. “I don’t think I won that match with technique. I won with heart, not just for myself, but for our community.”
Lopez’s individual championship was Neosho’s second of the night. Nate Rodriguez, the only other senior in Neosho’s lineup, kept the Wildcats’ title hopes alive by defeating Blake Clevenger of Kearney 6-3 in the 132-pound bracket.
“It means so much because I’m representing Neosho when I step on the mat,” said Rodriguez, who became Neosho’s first three-time state champion.
“I’m representing something bigger, not just myself,” he said. “It means a lot because I can keep that tradition going.”
Rodriguez has signed to wrestle at Ouachita Baptist University, where he will be reunited with former Neosho teammate Dallas Smith at the NCAA Division II school in Arkadelphia, Ark.
“I got to wrestle with the best of the best two years ago,” Rodriguez said. “We were ranked in the nation. We were a family and developed a cohesive group. That’s what I tried to carry on, especially this year. That’s why we performed so well.”
Neosho won all but two of its first-round matches and advanced 11 wrestlers to the quarterfinals. The other two — Dakota McGarrah at 126 and Jason Box at 138 — won their matches in the first round of wrestlebacks.
“After Day 1, we were having such an amazing day,” said Neosho head coach Jeremy Phillips. “We had a very good quarterfinal round, but we struggled in the semifinals tremendously, and that’s where we’re going to have to get better.”
As Friday night’s session ended, Kearney led the team standings with 118.5 points, 2.5 more points than Neosho, and had four wrestlers in the championship finals compared with two for Neosho.
“My mind was battling doubt that was beginning to creep in,” Phillips said. “I was sending text messages to our crowd to make sure we would have some cheerleaders.
“I thought this is a test to see if we’re really about this faith we talk about, which I believe is critical in high-pressure situations.”
Neosho was leading by one point Saturday night before Kearney’s Grant Leeth scored five points with a major decision in the finals at 145. Leeth was Kearney’s last wrestler and gave his team a 152-148 lead.
After that, Neosho’s coaches — including assistants Cody Crocker, Brett Watkins, Tyler Gordon and Sonis — had about an hour to prepare Lopez for his match with Moffett.
“He was very emotional initially, so I used some of my assistants to try to ease his mind and assure him that he could do this,” Phillips said. “I simply told him to remember two weeks ago, that I helped him redirect his goal.
“He had written that he wanted to place in the top three at state, and I said, ‘Why top three? You need to be a state champion.’ I reassured him that no one deserved it more than he did. I told him to go out and take what’s yours, and this storybook ending will take care of itself.”