HERSHEY - The table had been set. Penn Cambria's Evan Link had skillfully worked his way though his rugged bracket, and North Star's Nick Roberts awaited in the 112-pound finals of the PIAA Class AA Championships.
Link had already beaten Roberts twice - once in the preseason Super 32 and last week in the Southwest Regional Tournament finals - and he just needed to do it again.
But Roberts not only messed up the table setting, he knocked over the table.
Photo for the Mirror by Jeff Fishbein
Penn Cambria’s Evan Link works against North Star’s Nick Roberts.
Roberts, leading 1-0, turned and pinned Link 14 seconds into the third period off of a tilt, shocking almost everybody not only it came so quickly in the third but also because wrestlers rarely get pins using a tilt.
That it was something so rare didn't take the sting out of the loss for the Penn Cambria side.
"What do you say?" PC coach Todd Niebauer said. "It was a 1-0 match and right where we need to be. We go down into a position we've been very strong in. He didn't clear his wrights and got bunched up. He was so bunched up, I was like 'He's pinned.'
"It happens in life. Surely you don't hope that it happens in the last match of your high school career. I thought we were in the driver's seat. We get an escape. He has a stall call. Stay on him. I knew he could tilt and I told him to clear his wrists, and we had done a good job of every match we had wrestled in of clearing our wrists. We just didn't clear our wrists."
A heartbroken Link, who beat a returning state champion in Line Mountain's Zain Retherford in the semifinals and Bermudian Springs' runner-up Brad Farley in the quarterfinals, declined comment to the Mirror.
It was the second time Roberts beat Link in the state finals. Two years ago as a freshman, he earned a 4-1 win over the then sophomore Link in the 103-pound championship. It's also the third time a Link has lost in the finals. Nathan Link was a state runner-up in 2007.
Roberts was the favorite as a freshman. This one was more of a surprise.
"The pin is a shock," North Star coach Pat Berzonski said. "Evan Link is a quality kid, but Nick put together a nice, solid tournament this weekend. He peaked at the right time."
The writing was on the wall early as Link, a fast starter who usually gets at least one takedown in the first period, couldn't score in the first. After Roberts escaped 21 seconds into the second, Link pressed more on his feet, and Roberts was called for stalling with 41 seconds left in the period.
Roberts (31-2) had that 1-0 lead going into the third. Last week, Link led 4-1 going into the third thanks to a first-period takedown and second-period reversal.
"We opened it up a little bit more [last week]," Niebauer said. "I think we were a little tighter this time, but Roberts did a good job of controlling our wrists [from the neutral position]. He hand fought a little bit better than the last time."
"Evan Link comes after you like a storm," Berzonski said. "You've got to kind of ride out the storm. When it was 0-0 coming out of that first period, I took it as a victory for us."
Link, who had withstood a rugged high half nelson by Retherford in the third period, chose bottom for the final Saturday.
"We've gone down almost every time," Niebauer said, "so no second thoughts."
Roberts, who ironically enough was up 1-0 when he scored three back points in the third on a chin pick two years ago in the finals, worked into a tilt almost immediately, and he had Link in trouble quickly.
"If he gets it tight, he can score the big points out of it," Berzonski said.
"First, I was wondering if I was going to get the tilt," Roberts said. "When I got him over, I thought I could do it. It was tight."
Link finished his career with a 138-21 mark, tying Nathan for second on the school's career win list behind Pat Myers. He finished his senior season with a 42-2 record, with his only loss prior to Saturday coming to Waynesburg's Derrick Nelson early in the season.
"From that point on, we haven't had a bump in the road," Niebauer said. "Unfortunately, this is the one we're going to remember. But he had a great season. He's had a heck of a career."