UPPER MARLBORO — When Yonas Harris smiles, as the Northwest senior did following Monday’s dramatic come-from-behind, 7-5 overtime victory that secured his 106-pound Class 4A-3A state championship over Stephen Decatur sophomore Jagger Clapsadle, there is a bright glow complimenting his bleached-blond hair, lighting up the gym at Show Place Arena.
But Harris’ joy in the aftermath of a definitive accomplishment, culminating just four years of exposure to wresting, belies the journey he has endured from an impoverished section of his native Kombolcha, Ethiopia.
It is a pilgrimage best described in the perfect diction of words from the young man who experienced it.
“I was adopted from Ethiopia at the age of nine. I came to America because both of my parents had passed away, and it was a very impoverished area. Once I got here, I was adopted by Lisa Harris, a loving, single mother who took really good care of me,” said Harris, who has a B-average and a record of 46-1.
“After two years of speaking English, I was already taking AP classes and was able to get my grades up. The entire process was a difficult transition due to some of the trauma from my past, but I don’t feel sorry for myself, and I don’t want anyone else to feel sorry for me.”
If it took a village to raise Yonas Harris, his adopted mother Lisa Harris, Lisa Goodman and both head and assistant coaches Blake Godsey and Joe Vukovich were just that.
“Lisa Harris is my adopted mother, and I’ve been fortunate to have other people in my life, like Mrs. Lisa Goodman, who has also taken care of me and been like a mother to me. With Coach Godsey and Coach Vukovich, even though I don’t have a Dad, they’ve been like fathers to me,” said Harris.
“Coach Godsey’s invited me to his house, fed me and has taken care of me and worked with me in practice every day. Coach Vukovich is the same way, always making sure that I have my grades straight and that I’m on the right path to get into college. I have a few offers for wrestling, and I’m considering them.”
A former 98-pounder who placed second and third at counties and regionals as a wrestler at Rockville High, Vukovich noticed Harris’ athleticism right away.
“I met Yonas as a freshman when he was playing JV football, and I just saw a small kid like myself. I figured that he could make wrestling work,” said Vukovich. “I recruited him out of the hallway and had a long conversation with him about it, and he bought into it, working hard in the offseason. Now, here he is, a state champion.”
Harris was a modest 14-9 during his junior varsity freshman season, and a respectable 19-8 as a first-year varsity sophomore. A year ago, Harris earned county and regional titles with consecutive overtime victories against Alex Carbonell of Poolesville, avenging an earlier 6-4 loss. Harris ended last season with a mark of 41-6, falling to the first- and third-place finishers at Class 4A-3A states.
Harris’ lone setback on this season was in overtime of a 113-pound clash with Carbonell, a junior who this season won counties and placed third at regions and Class 2A-1A states, the latter on Monday.
One of Carbonell’s wins this year was a 7-6 victory over Clapsadle in the semifinals of the December’s Magruder Mad Mats Tournament, where Carbonell was a runner-up and Clapsadle placed third.
“I pushed myself to the limit all season with my practice partner, Siavash Sarvestani, who is like a brother to me,” said Harris, referring to the Jaguars’ sophomore county and regional runner-up who placed sixth at 113 pounds.
“I knew that I had a target on my back going from last year to this year, and it was all thanks to Siavash that a lot of this was possible. It has been a matter of changing my mentality in order to be the best, and as you can see by the results, I’ve done that.”
Harris’ takedown, 10 seconds into overtime, completed the win against Clapsadle of Berlin, Maryland, making him only the Jaguars’ third state champion and the first since 220-pound senior Luis Beteta (36-0) in 2013. Sean Clark was the Jaguars’ initial titlist, winning a crown at 140 pounds in 2003.
“Last year at states was Yonas’ very first time being at the big show,” said Godsey. “But if you look at his journey in its entirety, this is a young man who has truly come a long way. He’s become a great wrestler and an even better person.”
Harris reached the finals on a 17-2 technical fall, a 9-1 major decision and a 10-5 semifinal victory over eventual fourth-place finisher Nico Damico of James M. Bennett.
After a scoreless first period, Harris fell behind 3-0 in the second, following Clapsadle’s escape and successful takedown off a counter to an attempted throw by Harris.
But after securing his own escape to make it 3-1, Harris beat the second period-ending buzzer with a takedown off an arm drag to a “shuck,” tying the match a 3-3 entering the third.
A two-point reversal gave Harris a 5-3 lead with 1:33 remaining, but Clapsadle reversed Harris with 41 seconds left in regulation and rode him out to send the bout into overtime.
“The entire match, he was pushing, so I saw how aggressive he was and used his own momentum against him. I did some circling and hip rotation, and he went flying based on his movement, enabling me to go behind. After I went up 5-3, I knew at that point it was my match,” said Harris.
“My mentality before the finals was that I was very confident of winning. I was of the mindset that whatever it took, I knew that it was gonna happen, and it just happened that it took overtime. I’ve always felt that I’m meant for something greater because I’ve been through so much. It has made me mentally strong. I was never worried.”