HERSHEY>> It had been building, no doubt. Exeter had been knocking on the door. Saturday at Milton Hershey School, the Eagles finally kicked it in.
Exeter won its first-ever District 3 wrestling crown with a 32-27 conquest of Mid-Penn Conference opponent Cedar Cliff to claim the 3A title, which had been the exclusive domain of either Cumberland Valley or Central Dauphin since 2001.
The upstart Eagles (20-1) weren't really that all, however, despite first-glance appearances. Exeter had been stopped by one of those two clubs in the D-3 semifinals three years running. This time around, Cedar Cliff knocked off CV and Central Dauphin in consecutive matches to reach the title round; Exeter took out Shippensburg 38-23 in its semifinal match on Thursday to qualify, also a program first.
The door was ripe and it went down with a fury.
"It feels like a weight lifted off our shoulders to finally get a District 3 championship," Exeter head coach Jon Rugg said. "This is something we've been shooting for for the last four years."
The Eagles spotted the Colts the opening bout at 126 with a pin, before reeling of nine consecutive wins (including one forfeit, at 132) -- two of them dramatically, in consecutive bouts -- to build a commanding advantage.
Matt Ward, not even a full-time starter, stepped in at 152 and pinned Cedar Cliff's Dan Sigue with two seconds to spare to give Exeter an 18-6 edge. The next bout, at 160, saw Ty Harkness -- wrestling up -- pick up two late points to tie his bout and take it to overtime, where he slipped past Jared Meise 9-7 for a 21-6 lead.
Those were the crucial moments that carved out a pathway to gold.
"We talk about it all the time, how important it is for the kids to win the close matches," Rugg said. "To get the bonus points where they have those opportunities."
Ward's and Harkness's spots in the card were by design.
"We moved our lineup card around to kind of follow (Cedar Cliff) and we thought it could work out in our favor," Rugg said. "And it did. It literally went the way we hoped. My assistant coach, Joe Asterino, does a lot of the research and planning and I give him credit for some of the moves that we made."
Harkness, a senior, described his hard-fought match at 160.
"I knew it was going to be really tough going in," he said. "I was losing (7-5) with 15 seconds left in the match but I heard (Meise) weezing really hard and his conditioning was failing, but I felt pretty good. So that gave me confidence to grab a takedown. Once we got to overtime, he took injury time and I knew I had him broken.
"This feels amazing. We have been working for this for so long. We are so happy and proud of ourselves. This is it. We got it. ... This is the best team Exeter's ever had and we're going to be remembered for this."
Ward's pin one bout earlier, at 152, got the momentum rolling. The Exeter bench erupted at 5:58 with delivery of his six-pointer.
"When I get in the lineup I give it my all and try to do the best I can for my team," Ward said. "When I got him on his back I knew I could get the pin right there. It was close, but I got it. It felt great. I haven't been a varsity starter in any of my three years. It's a memory I'll never forget."
The streak continued for three more bouts, with victories from Tyler Borton, Tyler Bagoly (tech fall, 17-2) and Nolan Buck at 170, 182 and 195 respectively to give the Eagles and commanding 32-6 lead.
Attrition kicked in two bouts later, when Oscar Daniels dueled to an 11-5 defeat at 285 to Cedar Cliff's Francis Duggan, but the 32-12 advantage was officially too large for the Colts to overcome.
Exeter, at long last, had its gold.
District 3 3A championship match
EXETER TOWNSHIP 32, CEDAR CLIFF 27
106: Cole Baer CC p Jake Keller 1:33 (E 32-18)
113: J.J. Wilson CC p Ryan Watts 5:04 (E 32-24)
120: Michael Cassidy CC d Chris Matthews (E 32-27)
**126: Joshua McLaughlin CC p David Wentling 2:52 (CC 6-0)
132: Austin DeSanto E won by forfeit (Tie 6-6)
138: Justin Landis E d Luis Tirado 8-7 (E 9-6)
145: Gage Moran E d Christian Prestil 11-4 (E 12-6)
152: Matt Ward E p Daniel Sigue 5:58 (E 18-6)
160: Tyler Harkness E d Jared Meise 9-7 (sudden victory) (E 21-6)
170: Tyler Borton E d Hunter Nelson 9-6 (E 24-6)
182: Tyler Bagoly E tf Bobby Whalen 5:54, 17-2 (E 29-6)
195: Nolan Buck E d Donovan Ball 6-5 (E 32-6)
220: Emerson Wentz CC d Dennis Karas 7-4 (E 32-9)
285: Francis Duggan CC d Oscar Daniels 11-5 (E 32-12)
** Match started at