On Saturday night in the final session of the OHSAA's 82nd annual Individual State Wrestling Tournament, the eight placers at each weight class were presented with a medal.
The fans in the Schottenstein Center were almost solely focused on the ongoing battle for the team title and the championships by weight class. Meanwhile, Johnny Novak quietly, yet proudly, took the podium as the seventh-place finisher at 106, accepting a medal.
Novak will walk away with much more than a lanyard with a piece of metal, however. Novak will forever cherish the fond memories of competing and placing in one of the best high school tournaments in the country. And more immediately, Novak has a constant reminder of his Columbus journey – a prominent battle scar.
Novak took the mat at about 11 a.m. on Saturday for the seventh-place bout at 106 pounds. Novak stared down a familiar opponent, Cael Saxton from Avon. For his foe, Novak's glare must have appeared intimidating. After all, Novak's face featured a black eye.
Novak received the shiner during a previous match vs. Mason's Pacey Najdusak, a strong and athletic grappler. In the process of a hard-fought win over Najdusak, ranked third in the state with a 45-4 record, Novak earned the "victory mark." Soon after the match, Novak's right eye shut completely from the injury.
The difference between seventh and eighth places might not seem important on paper. But to Novak, it made all the difference in the world. Novak entered with plenty of motivation after Saxton narrowly bested him in the third overtime of the first round. The gutwrenching loss sent Novak into the consolation rounds.
"It all started with the first match," said Head Wrestling Coach Mark Sullivan. "Cael Saxton of Avon was an individual he had lost to once before in overtime. I had to meet with my assistant coach, who I trust highly in big matchups, David Armstrong. We talked about the strategy and acquiesced on a gameplan. Entering the tournament, we knew the ascent to the podium would be difficult if Johnny lost. During the match, Johnny deviated from the game plan. The adrenaline, nerves, and crowd noise all factored into the game plan going out the window. Johnny lost in overtime and said afterwards that the nerves got to him. That's typical of a state tournament match, often the game plan goes out the window."
The rematch proved to be just as enthralling as the first matchup, identical in many aspects.
Novak and Saxton battled to a 3-3 tie after regulation. In extra time, Novak returned the favor from Thursday. The Wildcats' junior tallied two points to claim an emotional 5-3 victory over his opponent. Novak fully earned his seventh-place spot on the podium.
"Johnny followed the gameplan perfectly and wrestled well," Sullivan said. "As a result, he won the match. I'm really proud of him. The team was happy for him and Johnny enjoyed it. It's very difficult to reach the podium."
Novak finishes out the 2018-19 season with a 40-10 record. And the best stat of all? Novak is back for the 2019-20 campaign.
The captain will be a large part of the Mat Cats next year.
"Johnny has been a joy to coach this year," Sullivan said. "He's a great captain and leader. Whenever I ask him to stay after with the youth team, he always does. He's always willing to stay after practice and do extra work. He has come such a long way since freshman year. Johnny is a great young man and a joy to coach."