BETHLEHEM Ever since he started wrestling, Northwestern's Michael Ortiz has been used to being the shorter guy.
At 5-5, the Tiger junior has found himself looking up to most of his opponents when taking the mat.
On Saturday night, in the 152-pound District 11 Class AA championship match against Palmerton's Cody Grohotolski at Liberty High School, the same held true.
But despite giving up seven inches to his fellow Colonial League wrestler, Ortiz did what he does most times. He won.
Jumping out to a comfortable lead and then hanging on at the end, the Northwestern grappler earned a 6-4 decision. The victory allowed him to stand taller than any of his competitors atop the medal stand.
"I've been the shorter guy most of the time," said Ortiz. "I've been wrestling taller guys since I've been five. I'm used to it.
"Height has always been an issue. My strategy is to stay low. Ever since I've been little I've been dreaming of this. It's not over yet, but it's definitely a step toward states."
Ortiz was one of two TIMES NEWS area wrestlers to win a AA title and will join 10 other locals heading to Regionals.
His teammate, Levi Veppert, also earned gold with an 11-7 victory over Jose Ortiz of Bethlehem Catholic at 182 pounds.
Area runner-ups included Palmerton's Grohotolski and Josh Evans (113), Tamaqua's Colin Mashack (106), Northern Lehigh's Ty Herzog (145) and Northwestern's David Tirpak (195).
Others who finished in the top four and will travel to Wilson West Lawn Friday for the start of the Southeast Regionals are Palmerton's Sam Oberlander (third at 120) and Kane Kralik (third at 220), and Lehighton's Mike Balliet (third at 170) and Anthony Farole (fourth at 145).
"I've been working on being aggressive," said Ortiz. "I used to be a real tentative wrestler and my coaches have told me that since I got stronger I should go out and be more aggressive. In my semifinal match, it helped. And it helped out here too."
The Tiger, who earned a trip to the finals by registering a 6-0 win over Northern Lehigh's Dylan Hofmann in the semis, opened a 3-0 lead on Grohotolski thanks to a penalty point (on an illegal hold) and a takedown.
The lead swelled to 6-0 midway though the bout on another takedown and escape.
"I knew he was tough," said Ortiz. "It definitely helped getting a point in the beginning and the lead gave me confidence throughout the rest of the match and allowed me to stay strong."
Grohotolski got on the board late in the second period and eventually closed the gap to two points, but the deficit was just too much to make up.
"I got off to a rough start," said Grohotolski. "About halfway through the second period I felt like I really started to come around. But it was too late to come back in a match like that. I can't complain about second."
Veppert almost had to settle for second, but the 182-pound Tiger fought off a close call to claim his championship.
"I'm overwhelmed," said Veppert. "I can't explain it. Once I got the first takedown I felt really good. They always say the first takedown wins the match and I believe in that."
The Northwestern senior used a pair of takedowns and a reversal to take a 6-1 lead into the final period. The advantage reached 9-1 before Becahi's Ortiz rallied. Ortiz got a takedown and almost put Veppert on his back with 30 seconds left. The Tiger used his strength, though, to avoid the pin and turned it into a reversal and a final 11-7 score.
"That was scary," said Veppert. "I can't explain that either. I just tried to stay off my back. I was thinking I hope I don't get pinned.
"Now I'm already thinking about practice for next week and Regionals."
After failing to cop gold medals, a number of other area wrestlers are now focused on Regionals.
Tamaqua's Colin Mashack is geared to the future and beyond after settling for silver.
The Raider sophomore had his hands full against Bethlehem Catholic's Darian Cruz, who is ranked second in the country at 106 pounds. Cruz took Mashack down three times in the first period before his fourth resulted in a fall at 2:43.
"I watched a couple videos to look at his technique but I didn't wrestle well," said Maschak, who handed Wilson's Jaryd Flank his first loss of the season in the semis. "I wasn't on my game."
"He's a sophomore who had a goal of getting to the finals and he accomplished that, said Tamaqua coach Jim McCabe. "He's not happy with the outcome here and I'm happy that he's not happy with that. I know what kind of work ethic he's had ... and he's going to work that much harder now."
Nolehi's Herzog worked hard late during his 145-pound championship match with Becahi's Ryan Todora to force a tie, but the Golden Hawk earned an escape to pull out one of his team's eight individual titles.
The Bulldog junior fell behind 2-0 in the first and still trailed 3-1 in the third. Herzog, however, managed a takedown with 40 seconds left in regulation. After one near escape, Todora worked free with just six seconds left to earn the gold.
"I was going to try and snap him back and go for the win right away but I guess I just ran out of steam," said Herzog. "I wasn't able to hold him down.
"I have optimistic thoughts. I'm not going to let it bring me down. I'm going to look at Regionals as a brand new tournament."
Palmerton's Evans is also optimistic despite losing a fourth straight decision to Pen Argyl's Matt Williams in Saturday's 113-pound final.
Evans allowed just one takedown to his nemesis, but it stood up. The two-pointer came midway through the first period. Both wrestlers exchanged escapes after that, but the Bomber sophomore just couldn't generate any offense.
"I was fairly relaxed going into the match," said Evans. "I've wrestled him three times before this and I think this was the best I've done against him.
"It would have been nice to score a takedown. I was trying to work on my feet a little more and get a little more offensive. Hopefully next time I meet him, I can finally beat him."
Northwestern's Tirpak faced a monumental task in beating Saucon Valley's Ray O'Donnell in the 195-pound finals.
The undefeated Panther junior rolled into the title bout by virtue of three pins in a total of 49 seconds. And while Tirpak provided a little more competition, the Tiger senior proved no match for O'Donnell.
Forty-nine seconds into their matchup, the Saucon sensation gained a takedown. Tirpak fought to escape but eventually got turned onto his back with 14 seconds remaining in the first period.
"I went into this tournament with the attitude of just doing my best," said Tirpak. "I didn't expect to get this far, but I did. He's real strong and he's a great wrestler."
Prior to the finals, Palmerton received the Lehigh Valley Chapter of Wrestling Officials Sportsmanship Award while Lehighton's Farole was named the District 11 Officials Scholarship Fund winner.