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Midvale Journal

Long-time coming: Hillcrest grapplers grab Battle of the Axe

Jan 27, 2022 12:54PM ● By Julie Slama

Hillcrest High’s boys varsity, boys JV and girls wrestling teams swept Brighton High in this season’s 53rd annual dual meet, which may be the longest ongoing annual rivalry in Utah high school sports. (Brenda McCann/Hillcrest High)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

The day before the dual meet versus Brighton High, which marked the 53rd Battle of the Axe, former coach Don Neff delivered a message to the Hillcrest High Huskies.

He told the wrestlers to “fight hard.”

Neff left coaching a winning program at Brighton to lead Hillcrest “with one goal—to win the Axe,” said current Hillcrest coach Nick Pappas. “He lost only five dual meets and all five were to Brighton. He finally got them.”

The Huskies followed the former coach’s advice, battling hard to take the Axe, 39-35. It was their fourth Axe win: 1985, under Neff, then in 1991, and the last one came 24 years ago in 1998.

Husky wrestlers Ezekiel Zimmerman, Wesley Tello, Ethan Lignell and Isaiah Rayco all pinned their opponents. Junior Wyatt Manning took control of his match, winning by six points.

On the girls’ team, Hailey Pedersen and Briona Love pinned their opponents, however before the dual began Pappas and Brighton head coach Mason Brinkman agreed not to include the girls’ score in the Battle of the Axe, but to leave its tradition with the boys.

The girls team also won as well as the JV squad, earning the right of the three-year-old “Battle of the Hachet” traveling JV trophy, making it a sweep for the Huskies.

The Battle of the Axe began when Neff coached Brighton in 1969 and met with former Hillcrest coach Tex Castro to create a friendly competition. As a result, fans packed the stands for the annual match-up, generating excitement and support for the teams.

Instead of engraving a trophy, the winning team gets to paint a two-inch section of the handle of the Axe—or one of the five handles. Two days after the 2022 meet, the Huskies one by one painted it green with senior Sam McDonough painting the first stripe.

“I didn’t realize it was such a big deal,” Pappas said earlier in his coaching career at Hillcrest.  

Now, four years in, his name will be remembered as one of the few Hillcrest coaches who helped his team win the coveted Axe. “Every team wants to win it. It’s a dream for them all,” he said.

He had wrestled at Taylorsville High where there wasn’t a 50-plus year competition with traveling trophy.

Pappas, who said that he only has a few wrestlers on the team who have more than three years’ experience, said his team has set high standards this season.

“This team has practiced harder, had more focus and really bought in to the technique we are teaching. Two years ago, we came close, and they wanted to seal the deal this time,” he said. “The kids are coachable, they hold each other accountable, and they knew how special this opportunity was. It’s awesome that they get to see their hard work pay off.”

Sophomore Cooper Limb, who won by a technical fall—15 points more than his opponent—said that he grew up wrestling, but he sat out a couple years right before high school. Pappas helped him rediscover his love of the sport.

“It’s pretty special to be the team that broke the streak; there have only been four Hillcrest teams that have won it,” he said. “It was super intense; a ton of people were there. It was so much fun and now we want to win it back-to-back.”

Brighton’s Brinkman gave full credit to Hillcrest.

“I congratulate coach Pappas and his wrestling team on the well-deserved victory,” he said. “We’ve had some close victories, but this time, we ended up on the wrong side.”

A recent memorably close match was the 50th Battle of the Axe in 2019, coming down to Bengal heavyweight Tyler Knaak winning the final match to give Brighton the edge, 34-33. 

Brinkman also thanked the alumni, parents, students and spectators that came out to support the teams, saying there was much anticipation for the dual since it wasn’t held last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’re a young team, so we can use this as motivation,” he said of his Bengals.

Region is in early February, followed by state mid-month.

At the dual, former Brighton coach Dave Chavis paid tribute, memorializing Bengal long-time supporter Kevin Davis, who died in December. He had three sons who wrestled, and his wife Dee Dee, who used to emcee matches, returned to the microphone for this dual.

As a competition of 53 years, Brighton High Legacy Committee Chair Jerry Christensen, who wrestled and was an assistant coach from 2011-21, said that the Battle of the Axe may be the longest ongoing annual rivalry in Utah high school sports.