Ernesto Zinadine Garcia

Mount Vernon senior Ernesto Zinadine Garcia wrestles against Pickerington North's Evan Papali in an exhibition match on Thursday night.

MOUNT VERNON – In the moments after Ernesto Zinadine Garcia’s match on Thursday night, his face told the story.

Under his right eye, a thin red gash. A battle scar.

Under that, a smile.

“It feels amazing,” he said. “It’s a dream, you know?”

This was Garcia’s first season on the Mount Vernon High School wrestling team. The senior moved to Mount Vernon last year, after spending the first 16 years of his life in Kansas. He played soccer all four years – two in Kansas, two in Mount Vernon – and had wrestled at his old school. But this was his first winter suiting up for Coach Nate Cornell’s Yellow Jackets, one of central Ohio’s most prominent wrestling programs.

It hasn’t been an easy year for Garcia. First, he hurt his knee; then he rolled his ankle; and lately, he’s had to sit out because of a back injury.

But that hasn’t quelled his passion for the sport – or for his team. He’s continued to push himself in the weight room and push his teammates, who lovingly call him “Big Z,” on the practice mat.

“He’s a machine in the practice room,” Cornell remarked, “and strong as can be.”

On Thursday, just hours before the Jackets were scheduled to host Pickerington North on senior night, Garcia worked up the courage to stop by Cornell’s classroom and ask a question.

“Hey coach,” Cornell recalled him saying. “Did you get me a match?”

“I thought you were hurt,” Cornell responded.

“No,” Garcia said. “I want to wrestle.”

Given the circumstances, Cornell gladly obliged. He found Garcia a match – an exhibition against Pickerington North 195-pounder Evan Papali. It was Garcia’s first match all season, and his first in a Mount Vernon singlet. His family watched from the Pleasant Street Elementary bleachers as he strode out onto the mat, assuming his position under the spotlight.

The senior didn’t disappoint.

After a physical, back-and-forth first round, Garcia struck gold in the second. He got Papali on the mat early and didn’t let up. When he pinned Papali near the edge of the circle with 20 seconds remaining, the Mount Vernon bench let out a proud roar.

Garcia popped up. The official hoisted his left hand in the air.

A big scratch. A bigger smile. For the senior, this was the mountaintop.

“It was my first match and to win it, wow,” Garcia said afterwards, eyes wide. “I feel amazing right now.”

Moving to a new school district in a new state midway through one’s high school career is never easy, but Garcia said he’s come to love Mount Vernon. Thursday’s victory was simply icing on the cake.

“I’m really proud to be at Mount Vernon, to be honest,” he said. “It feels really good and for only two years, it’s been amazing. The best two years of my life.”

Garcia was one of seven seniors honored on Thursday night at Pleasant Street. Jacob Burrell, Triston Bowens, Ryan Tiell, Wyatt Gregory, Elijah Yarman and Alex Mullins also took part in their final home meet.

The Yellow Jackets sent the Class of 2020 out in style, defeating the talented Panthers, 42-30.

“I was really happy to get a win…” Cornell said afterwards. “I wanted to schedule Pickerington North because I knew it was going to be a close dual. I wanted to get the excitement going in here, to have an exciting dual for senior night, something that they can remember going forward. And it was, it ended up being a very tight dual right there.”

Mount Vernon and Pickerington North finished first and second, respectively, in the Bad Apple Brawl earlier this season. They finished sixth and ninth at the Kevin Cleveland Memorial. Both teams returned seven district qualifiers from the year before.

But the Yellow Jackets appeared dominant early, jumping out to a 24-0 lead that would ultimately be too much for Pickerington North to overcome. Dylan Hartman (106), Colton Spurgeon (113) and Rylan Firebaugh (120), all underclassmen, recorded pins to start the dual.

Firebaugh, a freshman, knocked off Pickerington North’s Rajesh Bomjan, who qualified for districts last year. Bomjan placed second at the Bad Apple Brawl, while Firebaugh finished fourth. Cornell said Firebaugh has improved immensely over the course of the season, and that showed on Thursday.

“Rylan knew who he was. But Rylan went out there and got after him, and broke the kid. The kid was so gassed there at the end, Rylan just ran him over and pinned him,” Cornell said. “Rylan really got that huge pin going for us against Highland (last Thursday), and he did it again this week. And that is extremely impressive for anybody, but especially for a freshman.”

Burrell (132) beat Pickerington North’s Lee Anderson in an 8-3 decision to stretch Mount Vernon’s lead to 21-0. After Bowens beat David Carté in a 18-11 decision, however, the Panthers began to claw their way back.

The visitors recorded three consecutive pins of their own: Titus Mahaffey pinned Connor Lang at 145; Kyle Coffey overwhelmed Yarman at 152; and Micah Norwood, a state runner-up last year, beat Tiell at 160.

Mount Vernon’s Gregory won by forfeit at 170, but Pickerington North’s Josiah George pinned Steven Schisler at 182 to pull the Panthers within 6.

Junior 195-pounder Gabe Harmon put the Yellow Jackets up 36-24 on a second-round pin. After Pickerington North won by forfeit at 220, it became clear the heavyweight bout would decide the dual.

Mount Vernon sophomore Nate Stradley shook hands with Pickerington North’s Tyce Neu, and the route was on. Stradley dominated the match, nearly pinning Neu several times before finally doing so with 1:10 left in the second period. Stradley led 14-0 before finishing his opponent off.

“It’s the last match, he knew the score was close, he knew he had to win. And instead of kind of wrestling real tentatively and being real nervous, he went out there, he was shot-out-of-a-cannon, got after the kid and got the pin…” Cornell said. “That was a very, very good performance by Nate Stradley tonight.”

For Mount Vernon's seven seniors, Thursday marked their final competition at Pleasant Street Elementary. Several of the seniors had been wrestling in the gym for years – dating back to their elementary days – and Cornell said the team was glad it could send the class off with a win.

"It was nice for them to walk out with their hand raised," the coach said with a smile.

Mount Vernon will have a week off before it hosts the Ohio Cardinal Conference championship meet on Feb. 15. Pickerington North will return home to wrestle Pickerington Central next Thursday.

MEET BREAKDOWN

106: Dylan Hartman (Mount Vernon) def. Bennett Trout (Pickerington North) – PIN (1:15, second round)

113: Colton Spurgeon (Mount Vernon) def. Mackston Reed (Pickerington North) – PIN (0:49, second round)

120: Rylan Firebaugh (Mount Vernon) def. Rajesh Bomjan (Pickerington North) – PIN (0:19, second round)

126: Double forfeit

132: Jake Burrell (Mount Vernon) def. Lee Anderson (Pickerington North) – 8-3 decision

138: Triston Bowens (Mount Vernon) def. David Carté (Pickerington North) – 18-11 decision

145: Titus Mahaffey (Pickerington North) def. Connor Lang (Mount Vernon) – PIN (1:14, third round)

152: Kyle Coffey (Pickerington North) def. Elijah Yarman (Mount Vernon) – PIN (1:00, first round)

160: Micah Norwood (Pickerington North) def. Ryan Tiell (Mount Vernon) – PIN (0:55, first round)

170: Wyatt Gregory (Mount Vernon) won by forfeit

182: Josiah George (Pickerington North) def. Steven Schisler (Mount Vernon) – PIN (0:59, first round)

195: Gabe Harmon (Mount Vernon) def. Dashar El-Amin (Pickerington North) – PIN (1:12, second round)

220: Braden Watts (Pickerington North) won by forfeit

285: Nate Stradley (Mount Vernon) def. Tyce Neu (Pickerington North) – PIN (1:10, second period)

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Staff Reporter

Grant is a 2018 graduate of Ohio Northern University, where he studied journalism and played basketball. He likes coffee, books and minor league baseball. He loves telling stories and has a passion for local news.