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Smith grapples one final chance at state

Photo by Scott Chancey

Photo by Scott Chancey

AMERICUS -- It was a simple takedown move. He had done it thousands of times. The lunge, the quick slip underneath, the control and two points -- the two points he needed to keep his hopes alive for a state title.

Then everything went black.

Ethan Smith doesn't remember that part. He can't find the 30 seconds of darkness he lost that day. He remembers everything else.

He remembers how he was closing in on winning a state wrestling title he had been chasing for four years. He remembers making the takedown move, and talks today about the concussion -- the one that eliminated him from the state semifinal final match -- the one that ended his season.

But it's not what Smith remembers. It's what he can't forget.

"I felt cheated. I felt frustrated,'' Smith said. "Yeah, I teared-up. I just felt like it wasn't fair, felt like why me?''

That's where Smith is today, a year later. He will lead Southland Academy into today's GISA state wrestling tournament in Perry with one thought -- the same thought that's been burning inside him for a year.

"We sat in the ambulance after it happened and talked about it,'' said Ethan's father Mike Smith, who is Southland's wrestling coach. "He wanted to go back in so badly, but he couldn't. He hit his head when he went for the takedown, and it knocked him out. He couldn't continue the match. He was disgusted and frustrated. When you work so hard, when you work all year to get there and it ends like that it's tough on you, It was hard on him.''

Others have paid.

Every wrestler who has stepped on the mat with Smith this year has had to face the consequences. Smith isn't only unbeaten at the 160-pound weight class, but he has wrestled anyone who would face him. At tournaments, Smith would dust off his competition and then look for wrestlers in heavier weight classes. He would challenge them to exhibition matches.

He did it for one reason.

"To get better,'' Ethan Smith said. "I was sitting in the ambulance and I told my dad that I will work harder next year. I was willing to do whatever I had to do.I wanted to make sure that in my last year in high school that I didn't leave anything behind.

"I felt more determined. I wasn't going to let anything happen my senior year. I wanted to make sure it was in my hands and no one else.''

Smith started wrestling when he was 9 years old, back in fourth grade. By the time he was an eighth grader, Smith was not only wrestling on the varsity team at Southland, but he qualified for the state meet. He finished third in the state that year, and fifth as a freshman. He had thoughts of winning the title as a sophomore, but he broke his leg during football season.

"At first we thought it was a hairline fracture,'' Mike Smith said. "So we just let it heal. We found out later his leg was broken, and that we should have put bolts and screws in there. It took a year for it to heal right.''

Needless to say, it was a long, hard road back. It was even more difficult because Smith -- thinking he had a hairline fracture -- wrestled that season. He finished fourth in the state on one leg.

That's why last year was so important. Smith believed the state title was his to win. Then came the darkness -- the lost 30 seconds and the lost opportunity.

He will take the mat today with a career record that is close to staggering: Smith is 144-15 with 94 pins.

"He's a better wrestler than I am,'' said Southland heavyweight Bo Minor, who has had a phenomenal season, pinning every opponent on his way to an 18-0 record. Only one opponent has lasted into the second period. Minor is a career 101-29 with 53 pins.

"Ethan works a lot harder than I do,'' Minor said. "You could tell the difference in him this year. He is so determined. You can see that look in his eye. He's wrestling with a lot of heart.''

Smith has destroyed his competition, and has even beaten bigger wrestlers. In one tournament he stepped up from 160 pounds to wrestle in the 215-pound class, and pinned his opponent. During the holidays, Smith went to his father and asked that the daily workouts being increased.

"He asked me to have tougher workouts,'' Mike Smith said. "He was already staying after practice was over. He had trouble finding anyone to wrestle in practice and ended up wrestling Bo a lot in practice.''

The intense practices helped Southland, which will send nine wrestlers into the two-day state tournament: Jake Hood (103), Ryan Singley (119), Chance Israel (125), Matthew Garland (145), Lawton Williams (152), Andrew Alexander (189), and Brandon Jones (215) join Minor and Smith.

Getting to this year's state tournament had its own bizarre wrinkle for Smith. Moments before he stepped onto the mat for the title match, Smith's 13-year-old brother Cauldin, who had been ill and was suffering from dehydration, collapsed and hit his head on the gym floor. He had to be rushed to the hospital.

Ethan Smith was so upset he didn't want to wrestle. He took the mat, pinned his region-finalist opponent in 22 seconds then rushed off to the hospital, where his brother was released later that night.

"When that happened I was in shock,'' Ethan said. "And I was angry. I kind of took my anger out on (my opponent). I just wanted to pin him as quickly as possible and get to the hospital.''

Nothing has come easily for Smith, whose road to a state title has been littered with broken legs and broken dreams.

"He's been so close,'' Mike Smith said. "He just needs to take that final step.''

That could happen Saturday night.

"To win it, to finally win it would mean so much,'' Ethan said. "It would taste so good. It's something I've wanted for a long time, and something I have worked hard for -- especially this year. I've been so close. I just want to touch it. I want it to be mine.''