ALBANY ‑ — Zach Knighton-Ward exudes a quiet confidence. It’s the type of demeanor expected from someone who has wrestled at the highest level before.
But he hadn’t until Friday. In the Uniondale senior’s first trip to the Times Union Center in Albany for the state championships, Knighton-Ward proved the stage wasn’t too big or too bright.
Thanks to a combination of agility and durability at 220 pounds in Division I, unseeded Knighton-Ward pinned No. 4 Halil Gecaj of John Jay Cross River in 1:01 in the opening round before earning a 4-2 decision over No. 5 Caleb Null of Carthage in the quarterfinals to advance to a semifinal Saturday.
“I’m just really excited, but the job’s not done yet,” said Knighton-Ward, who is 41-0 this season. “I still have two more matches to win to get a state title.”
Knighton-Ward earned a gritty decision in the quarters, riding out Null for nearly three minutes. Null trailed 4-1 before earning a point on an escape late in the third period, but Knighton-Ward’s strength kept Null from taking him down in the final seconds.
An early stoppage in the first period because of a cut on Knighton-Ward’s leg slowed the pace of the match considerably. He said the pause brought his adrenaline down and allowed him to feel the pain in his arms, but he overcame the lull to advance.
There’s no shortage of motivation for the athletic wrestler. Entering the tournament unseeded despite an undefeated mark this winter was reason enough to wrestle with a chip on his shoulder.
But avenging last season’s third-place finish in the Nassau finals has been an equally impactful motivator.
“We knew coming in this year after finishing third last year, a disappointing finish in the county tournament, that he had the ability to wrestle at the highest level,” coach Tim Godoy said. “We’re showing it this weekend.”
Taking things match by match is part of Godoy’s plan for Knighton-Ward, who has made significant strides since his junior season.
He’s very active with his hands and feet, and few rival his quickness at 220 pounds. Given his lean build, Knighton-Ward has used speed to his advantage.
“He wrestles like a lightweight, and it’s paying him dividends up here,” Godoy said.
In the opening round, the coach said Knighton-Ward’s explosiveness led to an early pin.
“The guy pushed in and we were in an over-under position,” Godoy said. “We had the opportunity to hit a lateral and kind of caught him on his side. We pulled him in, tightened up and got the fall.”
Godoy set a series of goals for his star wrestler in the beginning of the season and Knighton-Ward has met each one.
He has bolstered his resume with an undefeated season, a win in the county qualifier and a win in the county championship. All that’s left is a state crown.
“I can go out there and wrestle with these guys,” Knighton-Ward said. “I can do it. To come into this tournament and not be seeded, I just knew I needed to prove I could do it.”
In other matches, defending state champions Vito Arujau (Syosset, 138 pounds) and Jacori Teemer (Long Beach, 132) also advanced to the Division I semifinals.