By Gary Fauber
Assistant Sports Editor
There was never any doubt in Cliff Warden’s mind that Independence would one day again be the state wrestling champion.
One year ago, he decided there was no other option — 2014 would be that time.
“I don’t know if you remember what I told you last year — 365 more days till next year,” Warden said.
The wait — 365 days, or 18 years — is over.
Independence steamrolled through the West Virginia high school wrestling tournament — just as it marched its way through the entire season — and easily outdistanced runner-up Oak Glen for its first state championship since 1996.
The Patriots finished with 181 points, far ahead of the Golden Bears and third-place Greenbrier West.
“It means as much or more to every guy involved,” Warden said. “Even the guys that aren’t starters. The families that sacrificed, the extra money and the summertime and the travelling. That’s just a big lift to the program.”
Ironically, it was Oak Glen that won a record 13 straight championships after the Patriots’ 1996 title. Point Pleasant ended that streak with three consecutive before Greenbrier West won it last season.
The Patriots had 10 placewinners, including champions Jacob Hart and Noah Adams. Hart won the 126-pound title, while Adams was victorious at 152.
“The team title means more than just one individual title,” said Hart, a freshman whose uncle Jeremy Hart was a state champion on the 1996 team. “We all worked as a unit and grew as a team.”
On Saturday, Independence went from being the answer to a trivia question, to being the unquestioned state champion. The Patriots finally scaled to the top of the mountain after two straight runner-up finishes, including last year’s narrow 12-point loss to the Cavaliers.
“We went on a mission (a year ago),” said Warden, who was named the Class AA/A Dix Manning Coach of the Year for the second time in three seasons. “When we walked out of here, we were on a mission.”
Tangibly, it started on the very first day of the season, when the Patriots defeated reigning Class AAA state champ Huntington — a title the Highlanders successfully defended on Saturday — on its home floor.
Huntington was without key members of its team because they were still with the football team that played in the Super Six that weekend. Still, the Patriots’ performance made everyone take notice.
After a tournament Dec. 14 in Lake Norman, N.C., that attracted state champs from all over the southeast, Independence never again left a tournament without some hardware. Huntington bested Indy for the overall championship at the WSAZ Tournament, but the Patriots won the Class AA/A title.
It was one of eight straight championships for Independence to close out the season.
Greenbrier West, meanwhile, didn’t quite finish runner-up. The Cavaliers finished with 118 points — one-half point behind Oak Glen.
“I’d rather they beat us by 30 than by a half a point,” West coach Jeremy Tincher said. “I’ve looked over all the team scores and I can’t find a (extra) point anywhere. We didn’t score any bonus points down here. Last year, that’s how we distanced ourselves; we had bonus points.
“I’m excited we had two state champions (Malik Boatwright and Marquis Frazier) and four in the finals. I think our program is relevant right now, and that matters.”
The scary thing is, as strong as Independence has been all year, Warden says this is merely the beginning.
“We accomplished our mission,” Warden said. “But when I walk out of here — you can quote me — we’re on a mission again.”
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