It came down to the final match.
That’s the one thing that the Hartland wrestling team has been able to hang its hat on and tell itself for far too many months now. It’s the one sliver of a silver lining that the Eagles have been able to grasp on to after losing to Brighton, 31-25, back on Feb. 28, 2015 in the Division 1 state final.
At the time, the Eagles wrestlers stood there in silence, some in tears, watching the Bulldogs celebrate their first state championship in school history, a championship that, for whatever reason, has proven to be all too elusive in Hartland, no matter how many trips the team makes to the final.
However, there’s no more crying now, no tears, no heads hanging. What’s left from that day in late February is animosity. And a whole lot of it. There’s a desperate need to avenge that loss, which occurred on the sport’s grandest stage against their biggest rival. It’s not that they want to, they have to.
Their chance is finally here.
On Wednesday night, the Eagles will get their shot at Brighton, the reigning Division 1 state champions — a title that probably burns Hartland fans’ eyes to read — at 6 p.m. at Brighton High School. The stakes won’t be the same, but there’s still a whole lot on the line, including a KLAA West title.
Although some might try to downplay the importance of the match, there’s no doing so in Hartland.
“I want it so bad,” Hartland senior captain Sage Castillo said. “I want it really bad.”
“We’ve waited since last year, over the summer seeing them at camp, and we’ve been seeing them a lot (as travel partners for quad meets), and we’ve wanted to get the chance,” Hartland junior Garnet Potter added. “Now, it’s our time.”
This match is especially big for Potter, who has been forced to feel like he let his team down no matter how many times his family, coaches, teammates and friends have tried to convince him otherwise. He was the Hartland wrestler that had a chance to clinch it in the last match at the 112-pound weight class against Brighton’s Lee Grabowski. He had beaten Grabowski twice before.
This time, however, he lost.
So the rematch means the world to him. Take a quick look at his Twitter bio @g_potter114 and it’s clear.
“Wrestling- 25-31,” part of it reads.
After winning his 100th match a couple weeks ago, the first words from his mouth: The score.
“Still, from last year, 25-31, it still sits in everyone’s head,” said Potter in response to a question about where his mind was at entering the quad meet at Milford High School knowing he was on the verge of earning a career milestone — so, a question with nothing relating to Brighton.
He said it again on Tuesday night, the eve of the rematch.
“25-31,” he said. “That’s all we’ve been saying, and how bad it sucked to lose.”
Certainly it’s not just Potter that wants it, though.
Castillo remembers the pain he experienced last February. He remembers watching Brighton celebrate, a feeling that he feels belonged to Hartland. Castillo, however, was a lucky one. The All-Stater and current third-ranked wrestler in D1 at 152 pounds said the loss only lingered, “a week or two.” For many of his teammates, it took much longer, and that’s if they’re past it now.
“I got over it pretty quick, because I could just picture this year coming up … and knowing half of that team is back,” Castillo said. “I knew we’d come back even harder.”
So far, the Eagles have done just that.
They entered the season ranked No. 1 in Division 1. They now sit at No.2 with their only loss thus far being in a head-to-head against Detroit Catholic Central, a team that has usurped them for the top spot and was always highly ranked.
Additionally, 10 of Hartland’s wrestlers are either ranked in the top 10 of their respective weight classes or listed as honorable mentions — meaning they fell just outside of the 10 best at that weight — on MichiganGrappler.com.
By comparison, Brighton has six wrestlers ranked in D1. The Bulldogs, which lost several huge pieces from last season’s championship-winning squad, are ranked fifth, but have been actively trying to piece their lineup together and figure things out.
They’re better now than they were at the start of the season, but the goal remains the same: To be at their best in February during the postseason when they’re defending their state title, regardless of what happens Wednesday night.
“I mean, we really try throughout the season to just keep everything focused on staying in the process,” said Brighton coach Tony Greathouse. “We just try to treat it like another match and try to keep making improvements and each individual guy making the adjustments they’ve been working on and continuing to get better so that we can be at our absolute best 30 days from now.
It’s helped Brighton to stay calm, cool and collected, as it’s circled no dates on the calendar except for Feb. 27, the day of this year’s team state finals. The regular season and winning the KLAA West means something, but they’re zoned in on the start of districts.
Of course it’s also helped that Brighton won, and that half of its title-winning team is gone.
“I think the fact that it’s a state finals rematch isn’t that big of a deal, because half of these kids didn’t wrestle in that dual,” Greathouse said. “It’s just a different team. I think that part of it isn’t as big of a deal.
“I mean, maybe (it means) a little bit more (to Hartland), but I think they’re probably in the same boat that we are, in the sense that they had a tough loss a couple weeks ago to (Detroit Catholic Central). They’re a good team, (previously) ranked No. 1 and they’re probably just trying to get better and get ready for the end of the year.
“I’m sure it’s on their mind, but what’s more on their mind is trying to win a state title this year.”
But this is a win its wrestlers feel is so important that it could propel them to that title. It’s a win the Eagles have wanted desperately since the day their season ended in 2015.
“We’re so excited to wrestle them (Wednesday),” Castillo said. “Hopefully we get the win.”