HERSHEY — You wouldn’t think a broken ankle would be much help to a wrestling career, but Penns Valley’s Corey Hazel disagrees.
It’s hard to argue with the junior, who cruised 10-5 in Thursday’s opening round of the PIAA Class AA Wrestling Championships at the Giant Center. Hazel will meet North Schuylkill’s Auston Hummel in the 170-pound quarterfinals on Friday.
Teammate Curtis Decker bounced back from an opening round loss to post a 10-2 consolation win to advance to Friday action.
Hazel suffered his injury while playing running back for the Rams’ football team in a Sept. 27 clash against Huntingdon.
“I was there when he broke his ankle,” said Rams coach Joel Brinker. “You sit there as a coach and you hold your breath a little bit.”
But Hazel said the injury turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
“Two weeks before wrestling season I got to come back and get training again,” he said. “I wasn’t allowed to be rolling around on the mat because my ankle was still swelled up and getting healed. I could only work on my feet and that was a blessing for me because that’s where I needed the most work --- on my feet.”
At 35-3, things have worked out well for Hazel.
“I’ve got my feet and I’m good on bottom,” he said. “I just need to fine-tune on top.”
Fairfield senior Nick Mort found out just how well Hazel is wrestling. Mort, ranked second in the state most of the season before placing fourth in the Southeast Regional, quickly found himself looking at the Giant Center lights.
Hazel took Mort straight to his back in the first period and nearly pinned him before getting settling for three nearfall points and a 5-0 lead.
“He was pushing in and I just let it fly,” Hazel said. “If it’s there, I’m going to do what I can. I’m not going to pull back from it.”
“That was big,” Brinker said. “It got his confidence going and Corey is going to let it fly. He has the green light for everything he wants to hit because that’s just him. He believes in himself and we believe in him.”
Another second period takedown, coupled with a Mort escape gave Hazel a 7-2 lead heading into the final period.
In that period, he had his lone lapse. Starting on bottom, Hazel was tilted for two points by Mort.
“I knew he was pretty good on top,” Hazel said. “When he tilted me, I was like, ‘I’ve got to get moving and I’ve got to get moving now. I’ve got to get out.’”
He did just that. He escaped with 45 seconds remaining and took down again. Mort’s escape made the final 10-5.
Hazel went 0-2 in the PIAAs last season, but he says he’s a different wrestler this time. Last season, he was more defensive, choosing to counter his opponents’ moves. Now, he is on the offensive and excited to be heading into the quarterfinals.
“I feel like I’m doing pretty well,” said Hazel, the District 6 and Southwest Regional champion. “I’m on a pretty good win streak. I’m feeling pretty good. I’m feeling healthy. I’m ready to wrestle.”
Hazel will face Hummel (39-3), who scored a second-period fall over Lake-Lehman’s Derek Dragon. Hummel defeated Hazel 5-2 in the PIAA consolation round last season.
“I think we’ve got a different Corey here this year,” Brinker said. “I’m expecting and hoping to see a different result and he is, too.”
Decker bounced back from a disappointing 4-1 opening round loss to Benton’s Mike Stuart. Decker had defeated Stuart 5-0 in a tournament earlier this season. Stuart used a late second-period takedown and a third-period reversal to triumph.
“I wasn’t myself,” said Decker, who is making his first PIAA appearance. “He wasn’t any different. I was different.”
Decker hooked up with Hanover’s Caleb Garland in the consolations and blew open a close match in the final period to win 10-3.
After a scoreless first period and a Garland escape, Decker got a key takedown in the second period. Garland escaped again to make it 2-2 heading into the final period.
Decker was quickly out for an escape in the third period and Garland was forced to be the aggressor. Decker took advantage, nailing Garland for a takedown with 35 seconds left. From there, Decker took Garland to his back twice, getting two and three nearfall points, before a final escape.
Decker said the second-period takedown and the escape made the difference.
“He needed to win and he went for some big moves,” Decker said. “I countered them and scored off of them.”
Decker said it was nice to wrestle like he knows he is capable.
“I knew I needed to get this one,” Decker said. “I was more aggressive, trying more moves and being a good wrestler. That first match was terrible.”
Decker (35-8) will meet the quarterfinal loser between Redbank Valley’s Willis Gruver (33-6) and Southern Columbia’s Todd Lane (35-4). Decker lost twice to Gruver during the regular season.