When Central wrestler Tony Morales thinks about his tussle with Huntsville’s Houston Curtis in the state finals meet of the 152-pound division, one moment remains lodged in the junior’s mind above all others.
Morales trailed Curtis by two points in the first period when he briefly had a chance to look around after the two wrestlers went out of bounds. As he prepared for the match to resume, Morales noticed the opposing coach point out something about his headgear to the referee.
It seemed the cross that Morales made out of tape and regularly wore on the cup over his right ear was hanging loose, which was deemed illegal. The cross, which had “Luke 6:35” written on it for this match, had to go in order for Morales to continue.
“Out of all the two years, I’ve never been asked to remove it,” Morales said. “It just lit a fire under me to come back and wrestle my hardest just to show that coach that was not acceptable.”
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Morales did just that once the match resumed.
Morales defeated Curtis via pin to win his second consecutive state championship. The victory was a sendoff to what was a rollercoaster season for himself and his father Robert, who is also Central’s head coach.
“As a coach, it’s so rewarding,” Robert Morales said. “You get to see all the hard work be rewarding at the end with them getting their hand raised. That’s awesome, but to have that experience with your son going out there and winning (is special). I think every coach who coaches his kid should all have the opportunity.”
Morales’ season ended with Curtis, but the chief story of Morales’ junior campaign began with him as well.
About six weeks ago, Morales and Curtis faced off in a regular season match that left Morales on the mend. Morales lost for the first time in the season and suffered a high-ankle sprain to his left ankle, forcing him off the mats for a while.
It was a hard pill to swallow for Morales. That much was evident when Columbus’ City Wrestling Championships came around, and all he could do was watch.
“I was one of the few who were able to pass out the medals,” Morales said. “Watching those matches go on while I’m sitting there on the sideline, holding the book and putting down numbers, it was upsetting.”
But Morales ensured the setback wasn’t long-term. As he rehabbed and doctors monitored his progress, Morales set his sights on sectionals.
It was an accomplishment just to return to the mat, but that wasn’t nearly enough for Morales. Robert Morales saw his son hadn’t lost any strength, as he won all three of his matches at sectionals and grabbed the No. 1 seed for the South Region of the state tournament.
At state, Morales didn’t slow down, which led to his rematch with Curtis.
“I had been training myself in my mind for a six-minute match,” Morales said. “I knew that was what it was going to take to win. I was going out there expecting a six-minute match.”
It turned out Morales didn’t need that much time. Midway through the second period, Morales pinned Curtis, sending both dad and son into an excitement that’s hard for most to quantify.
“I’m there when he gets up at 4:30,” Robert Morales said. “I get to see him put all the work in. It’s not like he’s telling me he’s doing it; I’m actually seeing it. To see him reap those rewards at the end, it’s fulfilling and very special. It’s an amazing feeling.”
Morales’ wrestling schedule didn’t end with Saturday’s victory. He will compete at nationals in Virginia Beach, Va., at the end of March and has goals of being named an All-American and finishing at least eighth in the tournament. He also has several tournaments lined up into the summer in freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling.
Come next season, the goal is to add a third state championship ring to his collection. Even if Morales makes it happen, it will hard to top his second experience finishing first.
“I thought I wasn’t going to be able to finish the season or be able to participate at state,” Morales said. “It felt really good to be able to wrestle and succeed coming back from that injury. This has been my favorite season yet.”
Jordan D. Hill: 770-894-9818, @JordanDavisHill