Why Oklahoma high school wrestlers in the mixed zone at state are wrestling with emotion
Jackson Oplotnik staggered off the wrestling mat at State Fair Arena.
He was only a few steps off the competition floor when he stopped. The senior from Edmond Memorial High pounded the wall angrily with both fists, then pressed his forehead to the concrete.
He’d lost a state-title match in overtime, and he was hurting.
Only a few steps away, wrestlers from Mustang talked excitedly about the match their teammate had just won against Oplotnik.
Welcome to the weird world of the mixed zone.
No one at the state wrestling tournament knows what the area behind several big black curtains is actually called. Some wrestlers warm-up there while others cool off. It’s a place of hope and nerves, joy and distress, smiles and tears — and if you want to see every side of humanity, look no farther than the concrete space behind the scorers’ table during championship Saturday.
Before the gold-medal matches began, the area was simply a walk-through area. Wrestlers headed out to the mats to warm up. There were coaches and referees and tournament workers and cheerleaders and athletic trainers going here and there.
But once the matches got going, the mixed zone started buzzing.
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Cael Hughes from Stillwater won the 106-pound title, and when he got behind the curtain, he was mobbed by coaches. There were hugs and claps on the back and smiles and more hugs.
As they celebrated, Christian Forbes walked by the jubilant scene. He had just lost to Hughes, and there were no coaches with the Broken Arrow sophomore. There was no one at all.
Lots of wrestlers took a similarly lonely walk. Off the floor. Up a ramp. Out a door.
Many had a glazed look in their eyes. It was difficult to see that face, to guess at the disappointment running through their heads. They’d made the state finals. They’d survived the early rounds of the tournament.
And they’d fallen short.
But then, there were the champions.
Cruz Aguilar won a 113-pound title, and when the Edmond Memorial senior entered the mixed zone, he had a pep in his step. But it wasn't just because of the win.
He was holding his right wrist and beelining for the medical trailer.
“I need help,” he said.
During his match, he’d broken his wrist, but the pain didn’t start to register until his adrenaline slowed. Over the next five minutes, Aguilar had his wrist inspected by trainers, took a picture with cheerleaders, got his wrist splinted, then hugged and cried with his family. He even jumped into his dad’s arms with his wrapped wrist.
For all the celebrations, it was the mix of hope and despair that was most striking. So many wrestlers were there preparing, shadow wrestling or pacing or even sprinting around. They were planning to win. They were visualizing the best.
But they didn’t have to look far to see that their match might not go that way.
After getting pinned in a 138-pound match, Jared Hill made it just out of view when he chunked his head gear against the wall and threw himself onto the floor. The Broken Arrow junior sat there with his hands over his face for several minutes.
Not far away, Drake Acklin sat on the floor with his back to the wall, too. The Collinsville 138-pounder had also gotten pinned. His teammate Jordan Williams came and sat beside him — but what could he say?
Those moments are tough.
And yet, for every sad moment, there was a happy one.
As Oplotnik, the Edmond Memorial wrestler, talked to teammates, he went from anger to sadness, from incredulousness to sadness. He’d been hit with a stalling call late in regulation that sent his match to overtime, and he was none too happy about it.
“Stalling?!?!” he yelled.
A few minutes later, John Wiley, the Mustang wrestler who’d beaten Oplotnik after losing to him in a similar fashion at regionals, came off the floor. Wiley stopped only a few feet away when someone pulled out a cell phone.
Wiley smiled for a championship selfie.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK or follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok.