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Darnell capitalizes on opportunity with state berth
A Jackson junior entered the district meet with one varsity win.
Jackson wrestler Justin Darnell entered Saturday's Class 4 District 1 tournament at Lindbergh High School with just one varsity victory.
He left the tournament with a spot at today's state meet, where he will take on a defending state champion in the first round.
"It's crazy how things worked out," said Darnell after his fourth-place finish in the 189-pound weight class at districts. The top four finishers from each weight class in each district advance to the state tournament at the University of Missouri in Columbia.
Darnell, a junior, started the year on the varsity team, but suffered a knee injury in the early season Missouri Duals in Jefferson City. He missed some time and Demarcus Huddleston took over his spot in the varsity lineup.
When Darnell became healthy enough to wrestle, he did so on the junior varsity team. He excelled at that level, winning all 16 of his matches, but there is a huge difference between JV and varsity.
Darnell expected that his last JV match would be his final match of the season. But Huddleston received a flagrant misconduct penalty in a match late in the season against Farmington. That brought about a one-tournament suspension. And that tournament happened to be districts.
Darnell had a new life, and took advantage of it in a big way.
"Nobody knew me, and I just went into districts trying to take matches one at a time," Darnell said.
He opened the tournament with a 6-2 decision over Eureka senior Logan Clement, and followed that with a 6-4 decision over Oakville senior Lucas Miller.
Darnell may have had his best match in his 10-8 loss to another senior, Mehlville's Max Muench. Muench had pinned his previous two opponents to improve to 30-2 for the season.
Darnell would face Clement in the pivotal win-and-you-are-in or lose-and-the-season-is-over match. Darnell trailed early, but came back to win 9-5.
That victory assured his spot in Columbia. He would finish the day with a 5-2 loss to yet another senior, Parkway South's Matt Whitney, in the third-place match.
"All I have to say is 'Wow,'" Darnell said after watching the first-place matches conclude Saturday evening. "I really can't believe what just happened."
The reward for the unexpected ticket to state is a first-round matchup with Oak Park senior Brent Haynes.
Haynes is one of the top wrestlers in the state in any weight class. He finished second at state in the 171-pound weight class as a sophomore, and won the state title at 171 last year. He brings a 39-0 record into the state tournament.
Darnell, on the other hand, is 4-4. But he is a state qualifier.
"I know I am facing the defending state champion," Darnell said. "I am just going out there with an attitude that I have nothing to lose. All I know is that I am one of the 16 wrestlers in the state in my weight class."