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Hightower, Wukie win state crowns
Hightower, Wukie win state crowns
By STEVE NOVAK
Shortly after 8 p.m. Saturday, University School’s Harrison Hightower and Brad Wukie hugged and congratulated each other. Each captured individual championships at the Division II state wrestling tournament at the Schottenstein Center on the Ohio State University campus.
For the 152-pound Hightower, it was his third consecutive state title. For the 160-pound Wukie, it was his first state crown. The two have competed together since elementary school and now as seniors they leave high school with the same coveted top prize.
Kenston wrestlers place
Also in Division II, Kenston’s Jake Kazimir finished fourth at 135 after dropping a 6-0 decision to Randy Henline, of Akron Coventry. The Bombers’ Tre Smith was fifth at 125 after beating Thomas Butryn, of Ashtabula Edgewood, 13-5.
Others exit early
Other wrestlers who competed at the state tournament but did not place in the final eight were: Division II, Kenston’s Mike Braun at 160 and West Geauga’s Mike November at 112 pounds and Dennis Leonetti at 119; Division I, Solon’s Anthony Collica at 112 and Devin Orr at 145.
Two Preppers have historic day
Wukie said, “For three years, this has been my goal, to be state champ. I was just standing there — after the match and it just hit me. I was thinking that I finally did it.”
Wukie won his title with a 2-1 decision over Kyle Ryan, of St. Paris Graham.
“The score was 2-1 in the third period,” Wukie said. “In about the last 30 seconds of the match, I got him into a cradle and just rode him out to get the win.”
Wukie said he has been thinking about winning a state championship since he finished second as a freshman. Injuries during the next two state finals prevented him from wrestling all the way to the championship rounds.
Hightower won his title with a 5-2 decision over Konner Witt, of Oak Harbor. Hightower took a 4-0 lead in the opening two periods with a pair of single-leg takedowns. Witt later got two points for a takedown before Hightower scored on an escape.
Hightower also sought the 100th pin of his career, but he fell short. He picked up his 99th pin in a preliminary match.
“I was going for 100 pins. It was one of my big goals,” he said. “But I’ll get over it. The important thing was that I got my state championship.”
University School head coach Sean Grosz said Hightower joined a select group of Ohio wrestlers who have won three state titles. He said Hightower and Wukie broke new ground in school wrestling history.
“And it’s the first time we ever had two state champions in the same year,” Grosz said. “We’ve had two guys in the finals before, but never anything like this. And now Harrison is one of less than 50 guys in the state who have won three state championships.
“These two guys have wrestled together since like the fourth or fifth grade,” he said. “Both made a decision to come to University School together. They’ve been together ever since.”
Hightower overcame the odds to win three titles as he was born with a genetic bone deficiency. He was born with Legg Calve Perthes disease, characterized by partial bone death in the hip. Because of this, Hightower had two surgical operations in the second grade to reposition the hip bone.
However, despite the surgery, the disease already caused his right leg to grow permanently shorter than the left. There is about a 4-inch difference between his legs.
A little more than a year after the second surgery, Hightower began taking wrestling lessons. He was in the fourth grade. He and his family said they believed the sport could help strengthen his legs for a variety of sports.
“He wasn’t going to be the fastest kid in the world, but he was tough and he kept getting up when he got knocked down,” Steve Hightower, Harrison’s father, said. “We figured that wrestling would be something to help him, because it’s aggressive.”
Call it coincidence, but early in his wrestling career, Hightower met another fourth-grader named Brad Wukie. They both had their early training in LaGrange Township in Lorain County, in a reconverted gym that was called the “Barn.” One of the wrestling instructors was Erik Burnett, a four-time state wrestling champ from Oberlin in the 1980s.
“We got our butts worked every day out there, but we kept at it” Wukie said. “We kept on wrestling through grade school. At first I thought I was going to go to St. Edward’s to high school and Harrison was going to go to Padua, but then we decided we’d both go to University School together.”
Wukie said he comes from a family of wrestlers. His father, Jim Wukie, was a state runner-up for Elyria Catholic in 1981, and his uncle, Jim Savucco, won two state titles at Richfield Revere.
Wukie lived up to his wrestling pedigree early, as his freshman year at US found him with a second-place finish in the Division II state finals. He lost the title match 6-4 in overtime. Hightower only advanced as far as the district his first year.
In their sophomore seasons, both Hightower and Wukie qualified for the state final. Hightower won the first of his titles, but then it was Wukie’s unfortunate turn to have medical problems.
He broke both elbows during the 2008 state tournament, defaulting a final bout but still placing sixth. In the 2009 state tournament, an injured knee caused him to default in his final consolation match and he finished in fourth place. Meanwhile, Hightower won his second state title.
The problems with Wukie’s right knee continued, and early this season, he had arthroscopic surgery. He returned in time for the second half of the regular season and again breezed through sectional and district competition.
Hightower also qualified for state, and last week the two old friends found themselves back in familiar confines in Columbus.
Hightower said he grew accustomed to accommodating the shorter leg when he wrestles. In his earlier years, he relied on his upper-body strength to get him the majority of victories. During the past season, however, both he and his coach admit that his foot speed has increased.
“But you can still see that he limps,” Grosz said. “When he leads, he only uses his left leg.”
Hightower said he still suffers occasional backaches because of the different lengths of the legs. However, the leg pain he suffered in his elementary school years when the hip and leg bones were still healing practically is gone.
Grosz said in addition to both athletes sharing an intense desire to constantly improve themselves, they also share a comradeship which goes beyond the sport.
“These guys have been together ever since that,” Grosz said. “They made the decision to come to University School. Since then, they’ve operated together, a lot like brothers.”
With less than three months remaining in their senior year, Wukie and Hightower are aware that they’ll be wresting on a different set of mats next season. Hightower plans to wrestle at Virginia Tech, while Wukie will attend the University of Pennsylvania.
“Oh, I’m sure we’ll still keep in touch with each other,” Hightower said. “We’ll gossip like girls about what’s going on.”
Hightower said he still thinks about his initial matches back in grade school. Despite some early losses to opponents in his first attempts, there’s no doubt now about his always getting up off the mat and getting ready for his next match. He’s glad he opted to keep on going with his early wrestling lessons.
“Yeah, thinking back, it was probably one of the best decisions I ever made,” he said.
Bombers’ hopes fall short
Kenston looked to do well at the state tournament, but came up short.
Kazimir said following his fourth-place showing, “He (Henline) scored a five-point move on me in the first period. I tried to be more aggressive. I was giving it all I had, because I’m a senior and I knew it was going to be my last match.”
He said he accepted congratulations from his teammates and then was hit by the realization that his high school career had ended.
“It’s kind of a sad thing, in a way,” he said. “I’d give anything to have one more year to wrestle down here again.”
His teammate, Smith, is a junior and has one more year after winding up fifth.
“I lost (a match) in the semifinals,” Smith said. “After that, a lot of the pressure was off and I just was ready to have some fun in the consolation matches. I just wanted to get back to using the things I was comfortable with, like the double-leg takedown.”
Smith said he already is thinking about wanting to return to states next season.
“My coaches have told me I’m going to have to work harder,” he said. “I’m going to have to push myself, to help me to get ready to compete next year.”
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