Emerging from a tunnel and into the bright lights of Times Union Center in Albany, with several thousand screaming fans following the action on eight mats, can be mesmerizing. That’s especially true for a young wrestler like Craig Jablonski, who never experienced anything quite like that before.
Taking in the spectacle of the New York State Public High School Athletic Association Championships on Friday, Jablonski might have felt as if it wasn’t real. He said, “In my first 30 seconds of my first match, I was like, ‘Wow, this is really happening.’ ”
Something else really happened for the Shoreham-Wading River wrestler: He took fifth place in the Division II 106-pound weight class, earning a place on the podium, a medal and All-State recognition.
Not a bad haul for a sophomore making his first appearance in the state tournament.
“I thought of nothing else besides the podium,” said Jablonski.
Jablonski, seeded ninth, completed his season with a 44-6 record. That single-season win total is among the highest in Wildcats history, according to Shoreham coach Joe Condon.
Even though Jablonski had never been to the state tournament before, Condon said: “He’s wrestled many top-tier opponents, so he wasn’t phased. He was ready to go. Craig was prepared mentally and physically.”
“I knew he had the ability [to earn a medal] and I believed he would, but anything can happen, bad luck, one false move,” he added. “He showed tremendous poise and wrestled really well.”
With family members in attendance, Jablonski clinched All-State status in his first wrestleback match.
“If you lose, you go home,” Condon said of the so-called blood round. “It’s very unforgiving. If you win, you get All-State.”
Jablonski demonstrated his ability to deal with pressure, winning that match, 7-0 over Clarke senior Gabe Cubrero. Then, on Saturday, Jablonski beat BGAH freshman Joey Florance, 5-0, before taking a 3-1 loss to Tioga eighth-grader Caden Bellis. That sent him to the fifth-place match, which he won by a 7-5 decision over Marcellus-Onondaga sophomore Carl Santariello.
Jablonski had split his first two bouts, pinning Peru freshman Ashton Seymour at 4 minutes, 53 seconds before dropping a quarterfinal to Palmyra-Macedon junior Jace Schafer in a fall at 1:12. The top-seeded Schafer (54-2) went on to win his second state championship.
It was noted that only two percent of the state’s wrestlers reach the state tournament.
“They’re all elite wrestlers,” Jablonski said. “It boosts your confidence a lot knowing that you’re up there with the top wrestlers.”
What makes Jablonski such a good wrestler?
“He’s been wrestling a long time,” Condon said. “He’s got all the good tools … He’s very tough mentally. He doesn’t ever give up. He has a very intense style and he’s always looking to score points.”
Jablonski said he surprised himself this season. “This year something clicked,” he said.
And something fell Connor Pearce’s way. The Shoreham junior, a Section XI runner-up at 120 pounds, didn’t qualify for the tournament originally. But when the sectional champion wasn’t available to compete, that opened up a spot for Pearce. “A miracle just pretty much happened,” he said.
Pearce received the news that he was in from his father, Thomas, less than 36 hours before the Section XI bus was to leave for Albany. Pearce said his father told him, “You’re going to have to lose some weight, buddy.”
Having been off from wrestling training for 10 days, Pearce said he had to lose 15 pounds to make weight after bulking up.
“Before I got the call, I felt underachieved,” he said. “I didn’t get what I wanted, but then when I got the second chance I felt like I got put on pause and then resume.”
So, Pearce (42-9), who reached the state tournament two years ago, made his return trip. Losing that weight, though, sapped his strength and he went 1-2. Following a 3-0 first-round loss to Alden-Depew’s Carson Alberti, Pearce pinned Horace Mann’s Patrick Steinbaugh at 1:26. He was then pinned himself by Iroquois’ Donovan Bukaczeski at 2:23.
“I felt I wrestled my hardest under all the circumstances,” said Pearce, who collected his 100th career win this past season. “I knew if I was healthy, if not tired, if I had energy, I would have placed.”
Condon called Pearce “a winner. Whether he wins or loses, he does it with class. He was right in those matches.”