LAKELAND - The effort was good enough for gold.
Avon Park's Delroy Blake was the only Heartland wrestler to make it all the way to the final round of this year's FHSAA state wrestling championship, where he grapped his way onto the podium for the second straight season.
Competing in the Class 1A 195-pound weight class, Blake (52-1) defeated some of Florida's top wrestlers before losing a heartbreaking 2-1 decision to Cardinal Gibbons' (Fort Lauderdale) Ryan Thomas (8-0) in the championship match.
"It was a good tough match, but you hate to see it decided on a stalling call," said Red Devils coach Blake Germaine. "This is the state championship. Let the kids wrestle and decide it. But I'm proud of Delroy and he should be proud of himself, he's a two-time state qualifier and made it to podium both times."
Usually the aggressor in his matches, Blake came out on the defensive against Thomas. Locked together in the center of the ring for most of the first round, Thomas was able to fend off Blake's take down attempts. Thomas' strategy allowed him to force blake out of bounds for the first point of the match.
In the second round, Blake battled back by breaking free of a hold to secure his first point.
With both wrestlers tangled in a headlock for most of the final round, a slight push from Thomas that sent Blake out of bounds was enough for officials to whistle Blake for stalling. The point gave Thomas a 2-1 edge with just under 30 seconds left in the match. Knowing he'd need a take down to pull off the win, Blake ferociously tried to put Thomas on his back. He came close, twice in fact, but each time Thomas was able to stay up long enough and move out of bounds.
"The kid was good on his feet," Germaine said. "I was impressed at how he was able to stay up against Delroy, because not many kids can."
Blake, usually stoic after his matches, was no different after Saturday's final.
"I came here to wrestle and compete," he said. "And that's what I did."
"I'm not really mad at the outcome as much as I'm mad as to how it happened. If he had just beaten me, just completely disgraced me, that's one thing, but to lose on a stalling call 2-1 is pretty tough. But I came here and wrestled every single match as hard as I could, and my coach told me he's proud of me, and that's all that really matters."
A senior, Blake mentioned that he has tentative plans to return and help Germaine has an assistant.
"This is my final year, and I can't come back next season. But I can help teach kids to get better and they can learn from my mistakes," he said.
Blake opened the championship weekend with a resounding 20-4 defeat of Hudson's Drake Carson (10-7). In the quarterfinals, Blake trounced the No. 2 wrestler in the state, Wakulla's James Douin (8-2) in a 17-7 decision. In the semifinals, Blake edged Dunellon's Cole Fagan (48-5) via 12-8 decision. Both Douin and Fagan were medalists, as Fagan finished fourth overall and Douin came in fifth.
Three other wrestlers from Highlands County also qualified for the state finals. Sebring's Casey Ricker and Luis Sanchez were competing in the Class 2A 170 and 285 classes, respectively. Ricker lost his opening round match, but responded in the wrestlebacks. He nearly reached the fifth place match before bowing out to Barron Collier's (Naples) Jamel Davis (11-3).
Sanchez, meanwhile, won his opening round match due to a medical forfeit before losing by pin fall to one of the state's best heavyweight wrestlers: Tampa Jesuit's Austin Underwood, who entered the match a perfect 35-0. Sanchez won his first wrestlebacks match against Ed White's (Jacksonville) Kelton Johnson (25-7), but lost to Charlotte's Bucky Dennis (12-2) who finished third overall.
"I'm proud of the way our guys competed," said Sebring coach Josh Miller. "We had a tough draw, but they knew there were no shortcuts. They came out here and wrestled hard."
Avon Park's Dre Neely was the fourth wrestler to qualify for state. Only a sophomore, he entered the season's finale meet as a Class 1A-Region 3 champion. However, he did not make his weight at Friday's weigh-in and was barred from competing.