ALBANY — In early January, minutes after winning the Ross Cordell Invitational at Oneonta High School, Cooperstown/Milford wrestler Avery Leonard said that winning the event, an accomplishment by itself, was just another step on his journey to the state tournament.
So when the Milford junior walked off the mat after falling in the state final, the shrug he offered to his coaches was not a result of aiming low. He just knew what he was up against.
“I wrestled a good tournament and I’m happy with myself. I knew it was going to be a tough match in the finals,” Leonard said. “I knew he was the best one here and if I got to wrestle him I just had to give it all I had and see what I could do.”
Leonard fell to Anthony Noto of Honeoye Falls-Lima to take second place at the NYSPHSAA Division II wrestling state championships Saturday, Feb. 29, at the Times Union Center.
Noto, a senior, exited the match with a fourth state championship, finishing the season at 37-1. He is committed to wrestling for North Carolina State after high school.
Leonard, who finished the season at 47-6, does not lose often. But he and those in his camp acknowledged that despite taking third a year ago at 113 pounds, even reaching the state final was beyond the goals they set entering the season.
“This was a better finish than we anticipated. We knew coming in this was one of the toughest weight classes in the state, and the plan was just to make the podium, so to make the final was huge for us,” said Nate Leonard, a C/M assistant coach and father of Avery.
“We make goals prior to every season and knowing what he was up against, making the podium was the goal,” he continued. “To make the final is just crazy.”
Leonard’s bracket also included Central Valley Academy’s Mason Bush as the second seed. Bush defeated Leonard in the Section III final, but Leonard tallied an 8-4 result over Bush to reach the final.
However, he had no such luck against Noto.
An active start to the first quarter ended with Noto picking up a takedown right near the boundary in the period’s last seconds. He conceded the escape to Leonard to start the second, cutting the deficit to one, but collected another takedown to make the gap three.
The same routine saw Noto go up 6-2, eventually extending a 12-2 advantage before closing the match with the pin.
“He’s a four-time state champ and he’s committed to D-1 so he has that experience,” C/M coach Mike Croft said. “We got everything we could have asked for. We accomplished every goal Avery had this year.”
In the semifinals, a big second period gave Leonard revenge on Bush and a guaranteed top-two finish.
Leonard got a takedown during the first period to take the lead, but the deficit was trimmed to one later in the frame as Leonard was called for an illegal slam. The Cooperstown/Milford coaching staff contested the call, claiming Bush tucked his head to force the decision, but after one period the score was 2-1.
The lead returned to two before the second period began, however, as Bush was penalized for a false start after having already been cautioned. Leonard then earned an escape point for a 4-1 edge, and boosted the gap to five at 6-1 with two more points on a takedown before the end of the second.
Bush escaped to open the third and pulled within two later in the period, but a reversal turned into two points for Leonard as Bush forced the issue late in the third.
Along with finishing the season at 47-6, Leonard set a new program record for pins in a single season with 29. He got the final two pins of the year in the preliminary round of the state tournament Friday, Feb. 28, also in Albany.
Leonard needed just more than two minutes total to advance with a pair of pins in the 120-pound weight class. He opened with a pin of Eldred/Liberty/Sullivan’s Joseph Curreri in 1:13. Leonard then needed just 52 seconds to dispatch Tioga’s Mason Welch in the second round.
“I have more pride than you could possibly imagine,” Nate Leonard said.