Stevens captures Camden's first state wrestling title

"I couldn't believe I did it," Andrew Stevens said after his 3-0 victory in the New Jersey state championships at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City.
"I couldn't believe I did it," Andrew Stevens said after his 3-0 victory in the New Jersey state championships at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 11, 2014

Camden High School's Andrew Stevens spent six minutes grappling with Robbinsville's Tyler Gildner during Sunday's heavyweight state championship wrestling bout.

Stevens spent way more time than that hugging his mother, coaches, family and friends when the competition was over.

"I couldn't believe I did it," Stevens said after his 3-0 victory at the New Jersey state championships in Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City. "I couldn't believe it was real."

It was a feel-good scene with a stranger-than-fiction twist as Stevens became Camden's first champion in the 81-year history of the state tournament.

Standing in a little alcove under a section of stands in the famous arena, Stevens was surrounded by well-wishers, most of whom were basking in the glory of the big wrestler's championship season.

But for veteran Camden coach Hedley Thame, who has directed the unheralded program since 1976, Stevens' victory brought a rich mixture of emotions - with "relief" rating high on the list.

"I probably would have left town," Thame said, looking back at his role in a Saturday-night misadventure that nearly became one of the most infamous incidents in the history of the tournament.

Thame and Stevens could laugh - albeit nervously - on Sunday when they thought back to Saturday night and recalled how the wrestler nearly failed to arrive at the arena in time for his semifinal bout.

"I get anxious now, thinking about it," Stevens said.

Competing in the 285-pound weight class, Stevens finished his senior season with a 37-0 record in becoming the most accomplished wrestler in a city, and at a school, known far more for its basketball teams.

Stevens said he felt as though he was "carrying Camden on my shoulders," during his drive to the state title, and he broke down in tears as he dropped to his knees at the end of his bout with Gildner.

"I was like, 'That's it? It's over? I won?' " Stevens said.

Stevens, who plans to continue his career on a football scholarship at the University of Maine, started wrestling as a ninth grader. He had moved to Camden with his family from Orlando, Fla., as an eighth grader.

"I tried it, I liked it and then I loved it," Stevens said. "I got bloodied, bruised, beaten up, but I kept getting better at it."

Said Thame: "He worked like a dog to get better and better."

A fan favorite with a bright smile and warm personality, Stevens powered through his senior season, winning district and regional titles for the first time in his career. He won four bouts in Atlantic City, although he nearly missed the third one.

Stevens and Thame were at the Ventnor house of a Camden assistant coach's relatives on Saturday night, figuring the wrestler had time to rest before the 7 p.m. semifinal bouts.

One problem: The semifinals started at 5 p.m.

When they were notified by a frantic assistant, they hopped in Hedley's car and raced faster than any Jitney to the arena.

"I would have driven up on the boardwalk if I thought the car could have made it up the ramp," Thame said.

Stevens raced into the arena even as a clock on the side of the mat was counting down from five minutes to signal his disqualification. He arrived at around the two-minute mark, threw on his shoes, and proceeded to score a 3-1 decision over St. Joseph of Montvale's Kevin Wilkins.

"I would have had to move to South America and start speaking Spanish," Thame said, speculating on his options if Stevens had been disqualified. "I couldn't show my face again."

Stevens said he got to the arena "early" on Sunday. That made for a long wait for his bout.

But he took care of business on the mat, and he jumped into the arms of assistant coach Geoff Weismer in celebration.

"I think I ripped my pants," Weismer said of catching the heavyweight.

Stevens spent the better part of the next 30 minutes hugging coaches, friends and family - none tighter or longer than his mother, Jeannette Stevens.

"I made her proud," Stevens said of his mother. "That was my No. 1 objective, to make my mom proud."


ONLINE EXTRA

See and hear from Camden's Andrew Stevens.


panastasia@phillynews.com

@PhilAnastasia

www.inquirer.com/jerseysidesports

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