Redemption: Senior Jontae Hardaway Wins State Championship

By Patrick Brown, Writer

3-1. 25 seconds left. Cleveland’s Jontae Hardaway, senior, is on bottom. He needs two points. He is scrambling, desperate for an escape, and his opponent is riding him out.

Suddenly, Jontae hits a Granby Roll, one he’s done a million times in practice, and jumps behind his opponent. The arena goes crazy, and the Cleveland section is on their feet, screaming.

The match goes into overtime, then double overtime. Jontae is on bottom again. The whistle blows and Jontae explodes. His opponent holds him down, chopping the arm. Suddenly, Jontae comes to his feet. The crowd is on their feet as well as Jontae breaks free. Taking advantage of his opponent still on his knees, Jontae jumps behind him, scoring two more points. The arena roars as time runs out and Cleveland secures its first state champ in 10 years.

Jontae Hardaway’s wrestling career has been a rollercoaster. As a freshman, he made varsity at 106 pounds, and made it to state, but lost out early. The next year, also at 106, he got second at the district meet in a controversial finals match, then lost out one round from placing at state.

It’s safe to say there were high expectations for him going into his junior year. However, his own goals for himself were even higher. Hardaway wanted to be a state champion. And he knew how to do it as well.

David Douglas’s Max Hodge, a heavy favorite to win state at 106 pounds, was Hardaway’s target. Hodge beat him as a sophomore, but Jontae beat him during the freestyle season. Jontae trained hard all season, working out outside of the wrestling room, while grinding hard inside it. He had to cut weight hard every week to make 106, but he was determined.

Districts came by, and Jontae won with relative ease, pinning every opponent in the first or second round. At the state tournament Jontae was seeded fourth, which meant he would face Hodge, the first seed, in the semifinals. Jontae kept the match close, and beat Hodge convincingly.

In the finals, he faced Bollong Joklur, senior, the second seed from Sprague. Hardaway wrestled conservatively in the first three rounds, much unlike his normal, slick, aggressive style. The match was close, and went into overtime. Joklur scored a takedown, winning the match and the tournament.

This year, Jontae wasn’t going to let the title get away from him like that again. He lifted weights hard during pre-season with his wrestling partner, and came into the season wrestling in the 126 pound weight class. Throughout the season, Jontae leaned out, and he ended up wrestling 120 in the later tournaments.

His opposition during the regular season was tougher than it was last year, and he wasn’t used to wrestling such large, strong opponents. Unlike last year, he was outweighed, and sometimes even overpowered by some of his opponents. Through all of this, he still won the Liberty tournament, the Hood River tournament, and Cleveland’s own Don York tournament. As he was winning, Hardaway also had his eye on his new target this year, Christopher Strange, senior, from Newberg.

Strange was a returning state champion, as well as the runner-up the year before. He was ranked No. 8 in the Pound for Pound rankings on the Oregon Wrestling Forum. To most watchers, he looked unstoppable.

“Chris was a solid competitor, and I knew I had to be at the top of my game to beat him,” Hardaway said.

He got that chance, just six weeks before state, at the Oregon Classic dual meet. On the second day of the tournament, Cleveland faced off against Newberg, the heavy favorites to win state. At every weight, Cleveland’s wrestlers were the underdogs, and looking to pull off an upset and shake up the rankings.

Jontae was ready to feel out his State competition, and get into his biggest competitor’s head by beating him early. The match was close, and Jontae scored early. The score was 3-1, and Strange got 2 lucky points in technical violations to put it into overtime. In overtime, Jontae was tired, and his stamina wasn’t fine tuned yet. Strange scored an easy takedown and won the match.

“It was a close match that he should’ve won,” said Jeff Zerba, Cleveland’s head coach. “After that point he had set the goal and worked towards it every day.  The goal was beating this wrestler and winning a state championship.”

It’s no stretch to say that Jontae was obsessed. He recognized a weakness in his game, and was determined to fix it. He bought the video of the match online, and watched it over and over.

“I prepared myself by training hard consistently and trying to push myself strength wise and muscle endurance wise,” he said.

While he was upset at the loss, Jontae also saw an opportunity. So when state arrived, he was confident. “I felt confident going into state because I wrestled him earlier and that opportunity showed me I could compete with him. I constantly visualized our match,” Jontae said.

Jontae had a great state tournament, with dominant wins early on. In the semifinals, he faced Enrique Jaime, junior, from North Medford. Jaime is a tough wrestler, but Jontae wrestled him competitively, beating him with a minor decision.

He moved on to the finals, as did Strange on the other side of the bracket. Jontae had a good warmup and he was in the right headspace. He also had an added benefit: he was the crowd favorite. Everyone in the arena was rooting against Newberg, the widely disliked heavy favorite to win state.

Jontae wrestled a smart match, sticking it out to the end to put it into overtime. In the two overtimes, you could tell the muscle endurance came into play as Hardaway wrestled strong while Strange wore out. After scoring the three points to put him ahead, it was clear he broke his opponent. Jontae stood up, clapping, then raised both hands in the air, pointing to the crowd.

“Winning state was the best feeling of adrenaline I’ve ever felt,” Jontae said.

As for his coach, Zerba said, “When the final match came, he was ready for it! I am extremely proud of him.”

Clarion photo Courtesy of Linda Zerba
Clarion photo Courtesy of Linda Zerba
Clarion photo Courtesy of Linda Zerba
Clarion photo Courtesy of Linda Zerba