Rocky Balboa and The Karate Kid have nothing on Kevin Thayer.
Unatego senior Thayer starred in perhaps the biggest underdog story of the high school wrestling season, winning New York’s award for best 152-pounder in Division II on Saturday at the Times Union Center in Albany.
“I think he’d rather have a state title than a sectional title any day,” third-year Unatego coach Mike Hamilton said of Thayer, a Section Four runner-up who turned a wild-card berth into a D-II state championship with a 4-0 run during the two-day tournament. “He never gave up. He’s just that type of kid.”
Thayer capped his title run with a 6-5 decision over Section Three champion Rowdy Prior, slipping out of what appeared to be a match-ending cradle for a two-point reversal with less than 25 seconds left.
“I’ve been taught all the way through pee-wees that the best way to get out of cradle is not to get into one,” said Thayer, who did the exact opposite while holding a 4-2 lead with less than a minute to wrestle.
Phoenix senior Prior, who entered the D-II tournament as the No. 1 seed at 152 pounds, chose the top position for the final period and immediately attempted to lock Thayer into his signature move.
“We were watching some videos of the kid and we knew he had a cross-face cradle,” Hamilton said. “At the beginning of the third period, Rowdy chose top. So we kept saying, ‘Just watch out for the cradle.’ “
Thayer often lifted his head while maintaining the down position for the first half of the last period, but Prior finally found the right hand grip and rocked the seventh seed to his back.
“He hit that cradle and we were like, ‘Oh, man,’ “ Hamilton said. “We knew (Thayer) wasn’t going to lay down, though. I probably seemed like, ‘Oh man, this is bad,’ but in the back of my mind, I knew he was going to fight out of it. He’s a fighter.”
Although Prior (46-4) took the lead with three back points, he failed to squeeze Thayer’s left shoulder to the mat for a pin. Thayer then threw his hips, arched his back and broke the hold, slipping behind Prior for the decisive reversal.
“I knew he was very good on top and he would pick top because he’s amazing with the cradle,” Thayer said. “I knew I had to get out. I broke the grip and I arched out of it. Then I had his leg and arm and just dumped him. I knew I could do it. It was just a matter of how.”
Thayer stayed on top of a seemingly exhausted Prior for the final 20 seconds, securing Unatego’s first state championship since Andrew Sherwood won the D-II crown at 171 pounds in 2005.
“I may be a little biased, but I thought that was the most exciting match of the night by far,” said Hamilton, a former Oneonta State wrestling standout who produced his first state champion Saturday. “He just showed a lot of heart. He worked hard and he’s in great shape. He wasn’t tired after that match. He could have wrestled another six minutes. That kid loves wrestling.”
The stepbrother of former Unatego standouts Cody and Billie Jean Dill, Thayer joins Sherwood, John Leech and Nick Muzashvili as the only Spartans to win wrestling state titles. Leech won the D-II 130-pound crown in 2004 and Muzashvili won it all at 177 pounds in 1995 — before the tournament was split into large- and small-school divisions.
“I’ve been looking up to those guys ever since pee-wees,” said Thayer, who started wrestling at age 3. “I knew I had a pretty good shot. My goal was to get into states and do my best.”
Thayer followed his 9-7 sectional-title loss to Chenango Valley’s Kyle Halladay with a perfect run in the state tournament to finish the season 39-3. The two entered states on the same side of the 152-pound bracket and appeared to be headed for a semifinal showdown as Halladay opened with a pin of Tri-Valley senior Kevin Palko and Thayer cruised to a 13-2 major decision over Smithtown Christian senior Matt Migliore.
Thayer advanced to the semis with a 7-2 decision of Petrides senior Tyson Simon, but Halladay dropped a 6-5 decision to Addison junior Trey Duvall in the quarterfinals.
“I trained for weeks just to beat that kid (Halladay),” said Thayer, who glared at the scoreboard as he walked off the mat at the Broome County Arena in Binghamton on Feb. 9. “We would go to practice in the morning and practice in the afternoon just focusing on how to beat that kid. We were hoping we would see him again in states.”
Instead, Thayer ended up beating Duvall, 4-0, in the semifinals en route to the title match against Prior, who followed back-to-back decisions with a third-period pin of Eden junior Alex Smythe to reach the final.
“He wanted Halladay in the semis, but Halladay got beat,” Hamilton said. “Kevin just wrestled a great match in the semi — smart and solid.
“Kevin was so focused before (the final),” he continued. “I don’t think he was really feeling pressure so much. He was on a mission to win a state title. He wrestled it like any other match, like we were in the wrestling room at Unatego.”
That wrestling room also produced a fifth-place finish from sophomore Ryan Marszal, who made it to the semifinals at 182 pounds before falling out of the title chase with a 7-3 loss to Warsaw senior Tim Schaefer.
Section Four champion Marszal followed with a 2-1 loss to Frewsburg senior Austin Lynn in wrestlebacks before pinning his last opponent, Beekmantown senior Gage Bourdeau, in the fifth-place match.
“Ryan was the only sophomore in the bracket,” said Hamilton, who also sent seniors Codie Nichols (145 pounds) and Leland Slawson (160) to states. “We moved him up a weight class to 182 to give him a better shot to win sectionals and that worked out. He wrestles beyond his years.”
Unatego amassed 38 points to place 11th out of 105 D-II teams that scored at the state tournament, helping Section Four to finish third out of the 12 participating sections. Section Five won the title with 230 points, followed by Section Six at 225 and Section Four at 213.5.
Bainbridge-Guilford/Afton teammates Mark Viviano and Chris Cirigliano rounded out the area place-winners Saturday.
Section Four champion Viviano, a senior, also made it to the semifinals but wound up fifth at 195 pounds after earning a forfeit victory against Midlakes senior Tyler Smith in his final match.
Freshman Cirigliano followed his Section Four title at 106 pounds with a sixth-place finish in the state tournament. Cirigliano lost his first match, then went 2-2 in wrestlebacks.