CABOT First-year Cabot Panthers wrestling coach Justin Turner said senior C.J. Long was a calming influence for the young squad.
And Long didn’t disappoint his coach.
Long, who went 44-3 this season, won the Class 6A-7A state championship in the 195-pound weight class, beating Springdale Har-Ber’s Long Collins 7-6 in the championship match Feb. 17 at the Jack Stephens Center in Little Rock.
“I thought he had a fantastic year,” Turner said of Long. “His record, and not even winning state, was indicative of what he meant to the program. We’re a super young team. We started 12 freshmen and sophomores, and C.J. was kind of the leader. He was the voice of reason and the voice of calm. He’s kind of a curmudgeon. He’s got an old soul. He was just a great mentor and leader to the younger guys.”
While Turner said that Long is a calming influence, Long had to be calmed down in his championship match.
In a highly competitive final, Long and Collins got into a bit of an argument. Long took down Collins for two points, giving him a 6-4 lead late in the match. Collins wasn’t happy with the move and shoved Long, and the wrestlers had to be separated.
“We were just being competitive,” Long said. “I just like wrestling that way, past the whistle a little bit. [Collins] may be a better athlete than me. He is a good wrestler and didn’t take it like most guys do. He just pushed me back.
“Coach Turner told me to obviously quit being dumb: ‘It’s a big deal. It’s the state championship in your senior year. Don’t throw it all away because of something stupid like pride.’”
Collins tied the match at 6-6. The two wrestlers went out of bounds, stopping the clock with seven seconds left.
“I stood up right away,” Long said. “He tried to do this leg lift on me to bring me back down, which worked a couple times early in the match, so he went back for it. I was expecting it, so I just fought hands. I looked up, and there were three seconds left. He was on top of me, and there was no way he could get more points. I did this kick roll, not even a wrestling move, and I ended up getting away with one second left to win the match.”
Long said winning the state title was big for him and the Cabot community.
“I moved here six years ago from Oregon, and I went to junior high and high school here,” Long said. “This town means a lot to me. It is everything I worked for. Last year, I didn’t do too well. I should have done better at the state tournament.”
Long also won his semifinal match over Rogers Heritage’s Charlie March by one point.
Going into the semifinals, Turner said, Long was as nervous as he’s ever seen him.
“He was never really in danger of not winning it,” Turner said of the semifinal win. “I think he could have beaten the kid by a lot more than he did. But he wrestled tight and wrestled nervous. That only added to my angst going into the finals, where he had an extremely tough match against a kid who was heavily favored.”
Turner said that once Long was taken down by Collins in the finals early in the match, Long loosened up.
“He stopped wrestling like he was nervous and just let it all go and truly outwrestled the kid for the rest of the match,” Turner said of Long. “It was still a close score, but the score wasn’t indicative of how I felt about the ebb and flow of the match.”
Long’s wrestling career isn’t over yet. He will compete in the Battle of Bad four-state dual competition March 6 in Oklahoma.
But winning the state title was a great way for him to close out his high school career.
“It was the best way I could go out,” Long said. “[Collins] was a really good wrestler. Honestly, I wasn’t expecting much, but I’m glad it turned out the way it did.”
Long has been wrestling for nine years, starting in the third grade.
“My parents stuck me in it, and I really didn’t like it very much,” he said. “I honestly didn’t like it all the way up until high school.”
Long also played football and was the starting center the past two years for the Panthers.
“[Wrestling] is the hardest sport,” he said. “It is 10 times harder than football, and I’ve played them both. [Wrestling] just kept me in great shape. It helps you to be a really good athlete. I’m not that big. I think wrestling definitely helped me a lot in football.”
Long said he enjoyed football more than wrestling.
“It is a lot easier to do,” he said of football. “A lot more people know more about football than they do wrestling, especially around here.”
However, he was more competitive in wrestling.
“In wrestling, I can do things myself,” Long said. “It is a team sport, but in the state tournament, it’s you, and you don’t have to depend upon 10 other guys.”
Long’s three losses this season were to two other state champions. He lost twice to Layne Hatcher of Pulaski Academy. Hatcher won the 195-pound Class 1A-5A state title. He is a four-time state champion.
Long’s other loss came to Dalton Abney of Tulsa, Oklahoma, who won a state title in Oklahoma.
Long has already enlisted in the Arkansas Air National Guard and will report to basic training this summer.
“I’m going to drill every month,” he said. “That is what is gong to be paying for my college.”
Long said he wants to attend Southern Arkansas University in Magnolia and study agriculture business.
As a team, the Panthers finished 14th in the Class 6A-7A standings.
Cabot had only one other wrestler place. Senior Dylan Dowda finished sixth in the 170-pound weight class, losing to Ryan Tillery of Searcy 13-9 in the fifth-place match.
“I don’t think we would have been nearly as successful as a team without C.J. or Dylan and their influence on the team,” Turner said.
Staff writer Mark Buffalo can be reached at (501) 399-3676 or email@example.com.