HSWR: Sharks navigate pandemic, playoffs to arrive at first state title match

They were so close for so many years, but in their first season in Class 4A, May River’s wrestlers conquered the Lower State — at the expense of their rival Hilton Head High Seahawks. Now, the Sharks have a chance to topple a perennial state powerhouse and claim a state title in just their fifth year of existence. 

For several months heading into the winter, there was major doubt that there would even be a wrestling season. With the sport leading the NFHS list of the most high-risk school activities while cases of COVID-19 continued to spike across the nation, state, and county, the chances of getting on the mat at all were in serious jeopardy. 

Even if the opportunity of a season came forth, the hurdles of completing one would be sky-high. The invisible opponent would be as dangerous as the physical one, if not more so. With wrestlers making close contact with each other at all times in practice and during matches, student-athletes would need to be as vigilant as they possibly could. Just one unknown exposure of the virus could easily transmit throughout an entire team, posing a risk to themselves, friends, and older family members while shutting down the program for the foreseeable future. Everyone needed to be on the top of their game in every sense of the word to make this season possible. 

We’ve never asked more of our high school student-athletes, and May River’s wrestlers delivered, making their way to an unprecedented state title bout in the most unprecedented of years. 

“I’m very proud of the kids on our program who have sacrificed so much,” head coach Ashley Powell said. “They sacrificed a lot of things that a normal high school kid gets to do. Wrestling’s a tough sport, and they made a commitment to put the team above ourselves and be selfless, not selfish.”

Photo by Justin Jarrett

Leading the Sharks is superstar Eli Hall, who has single-handedly taken May River to new heights on both the football field and the wrestling mat. Hall is no stranger to wrestling success, as the senior dominated his weight class a year ago, bringing home an individual state championship at 220 pounds. Now, after another phenomenal 2021 campaign, the Furman football commit will look to polish off his astounding Shark career with another individual title while leading his team to one of their own. 

“It would obviously mean a lot for the program,” Hall said. “It would probably mean the most to the team because we’ve worked so hard through all the problems we’ve had with COVID and not being able to be in the room. We’re going to have to do the same thing we’ve been doing for the past couple weeks. Instead of thinking of it as state finals, it’s just another wrestling match. We’ve got to wrestle just how we’ve been wrestling for the last couple weeks.”

Photo by Mary Beth Lyons

It’s certainly been a privilege to get on the mat this year, and senior Wyatt Banfield has taken full advantage, shining in the postseason to send his squad to the championship match. Banfield made quick work of his Hartsville opponent, scoring a first-period pin before taking care of his Seahawk foe in the Lower State finals to help lock up the victory. A longtime member of a now-dominant program since their fledgling days four years ago, Banfield knows how far they’ve come on their way to the doorstep of a state title. 

“I’ve been with this program for four years now, and in my first year, we qualified two or three wrestlers [to the individual state tournament],” Banfield said. “The following year after that, it was a little bit more. Seeing that progress with being a five-year program, I think [this success] is going to be a continuous thing, and next year we’ll have a really good chance of getting in this position again.”

It was a journey that was energized even more by the move from Class 3A to 4A this school year, joining the likes of strong Lowco rivals like Beaufort High and Hilton Head High. For the last two years, May River ran into the buzzsaw that was Gilbert, falling to the Indians in the Lower State semifinals and finals in consecutive years. But this year, even when they were short-handed going into a fierce battle with rival Hilton Head Island, the Sharks left no doubt. 

“We’ve been snake-bitten the last couple years, but we lost to teams that were better than us,” Powell said. 

But the final challenge that lies between the Sharks and a coveted state championship could not be a tougher one. They’ll have to conquer Eastside, a program that has dominated the states’ wrestling landscape for years, earning an incredible 14 state championships all under the direction of legendary coach Jack Kosmicki. 

If the Sharks triumph in Columbia on Saturday afternoon, they’ll have done something extraordinary against a school that breeds success on the mat year after year. And with May Rivers’ tremendous group of hard-working athletes and a motivated senior class looking to put the finishing touches on a spectacular career, it’s nearly impossible to count them out. After a tough ending to a limited football season, they’ll have all the motivation to lock in, put in every ounce of effort on the mat, and bring home a state championship for the ages. 

“At the end of the day, I think we’re incredibly thankful for the kids and getting the opportunity to represent our school. They put a lot of hard work in over a four-year period to get to this point,” Powell said. “In football we only had five games, some people only got three or four, so we didn’t take anything for granted. We tried to do as best we could, limiting matches and making sure our seniors got an opportunity to fulfill their dream, which is something we’ve talked about for over four years now, having the opportunity to win what we call a big trophy. I think all the accolades and results go right back to our kids and I’m excited for them to get the opportunity to wrestle on that final day for an opportunity to be a state champion.”

By Wes Kerr

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