CARY — When called upon, Cary’s top wrestlers came through one after the other to all but seal the Tri-9 Conference championship.
The Imps came away with a 34-26 victory against Panther Creek on Thursday, and with Cary’s two remaining conference matches coming against sub-.500 teams, the Imps (16-0, 6-0) can start planning on a second straight conference title.
The Catamounts (17-4, 5-2), ranked fourth in The News & Observer area rankings, seem set for third place in the Tri-9.
Cary’s victories against Holly Springs, which is second in the Triangle rankings and in the Tri-9, and Panther Creek both came down to the final bout. “This conference has gotten so competitive,” Cary coach Taylor Cummings said.
The 20-time state champion Imps had once won 27 straight conference titles, but each of the past three seasons has been a battle, including Panther Creek taking the conference title in 2011.
In the same gym where that streak, among others, was snapped, Cary made sure to keep its first-place perch.
“It feels good because a three-way tie is basically third. And it feels like we’re carrying the tradition of Cary,” said sophomore Will Clark said.
But the Imps had to rally.
The match started with the 182-pound class, meaning the Catamounts were able to lead off with their strongest areas – the top four and bottom four weight classes.
Panther Creek’s Matt Powell led off the match with a 6-1 victory against Franklin McNamara.
Cary’s Trent Wooten pulled out a 5-3 win in overtime with almost no time left. Wooten took down Rony Nasrallah with about 10 seconds left in the third period, then took him down again with 0.3 left on the clock in sudden-death overtime.
Undefeated Corey Daniels of Cary (220 pounds) slugged it out with Aaron Chan for a 4-2 win, but then Panther Creek began to roll.
Cary forfeited at heavyweight, and Panther Creek led 9-6.
Panther Creek’s Kendall Hester (106) pinned at 3 minutes, 20 minutes followed by Shovan Bhatta (113) winning 13-3 and Nathan Allison (120) taking a close 3-1 decision against Carlos Alvarez.
The Catamounts were up 22-6, but Cary’s best wrestlers were yet to come.
“We had them on the ropes. Hand it to (Cary), they wrestled really well. They did a really good job,” Panther Creek coach Jon Armfield said. “My overall message was that I was proud of them. They don’t need to hang their heads because they came up short. I believe they did the best they could, and as a high school coach that’s all you can ask for.”
Clark, ranked No. 1 in the state at 126 pounds, pinned in 3:04 to improve to 38-0 this season and cut the lead to 22-12. Cummings said Clark was “wrestling lights out” this year.
“I tried to zone everything out,” Clark said. “I knew I had to get six (points), so I knew that if I tired the guy out I could get it. I knew if I got a roll, our team would pick up and feed off that.”
Ryan Foran (132) won 3-1 to make it two straight victories by Cary. Alex Ynoquio (138) followed with a pin in 1:32 minute, 32 seconds to move his record to 34-1 on the year.
Cary led for the first time after a 5-1 win by Steven Amaya (145) made it 24-22 with three bouts left.
Panther Creek regained the lead on Brady Bethers’ 16-6 victory, but up next was Cary’s Mark Mulligan, who Mulligan needed just 50 seconds for his win, forcing Panther Creek to need a tech fall or pin in the last bout.
Cary’s Ryan Silverman did more than just stay off his back, he won 12-3.
With the conference title in hand, Cary is hoping for a long postseason run, though Cummings said he wouldn’t be surprised if his team has to cross paths with Panther Creek or Holly Springs again.
“It’s starting to form together,” Cummings said of his lineup. “I just hope we can stay healthy at the right time.”
Blake: 919-460-2606; twitter.com/JMBpreps