TOMS RIVER, N.J. — Just on the surface, it was a magical moment: Cheney Kinner’s winning the final bout to clinch Kingsway’s victory over Phillipsburg in the Group 4 team wrestling state final.

But it was so much more than that.

Maybe that’s why Kinner’s teammates kept him on their shoulders for so long.

Maybe that’s why coach Mike Barikian hugged Kinner so tightly.

Maybe that’s why Kinner fought so hard, and so unsuccessfully, to keep the tears from running down his cheeks.

Kingsway coach Mike Barikian (right) embraces wrestler Cheney Kinner after the state championship match.
PHIL ANASTASIA / Staff
Kingsway coach Mike Barikian (right) embraces wrestler Cheney Kinner after the state championship match.

“I can’t tell you how happy I am for him,” Barikian said of Kinner after Kingsway’s 26-20 victory over the five-time defending state champion Sunday at Toms River North High School.

Kinner took the mat with Kingsway holding a 23-20 lead, thanks to freshman Dakota Morris’ 1-0 victory at 132 pounds that snapped a 20-20 tie.

Because Kingsway held the tiebreaker edge, Kinner needed only to avoid surrendering bonus points. He could have lost a decision and the Dragons still would have won the match.

But the junior dominated the 138-pound bout, going out to an 8-0 lead as the excitement built on the Kingsway bench and among the Dragons’ fans in RJWBarnabas Health Arena.

“I just didn’t want to do anything stupid,” Kinner said with a smile. “I knew I could beat the kid. I just had to be smart, do what I knew I could do, but definitely play it safe.

“But I wanted to finish it off.”

When the buzzer sounded on his 8-1 victory, Kinner raced into the arms of his teammates. Moments later, he found himself on their shoulders.

The celebration marked a milestone victory for the Dragons in their steady development into one of the state’s top programs in their third season under Barikian, a former Sterling and Navy wrestler.

It also was deeply satisfying for Kinner, who has battled through a demanding season, wrestling above his normal weight class while operating under the shadow of the accomplishments of his older brothers.

Trace Kinner, who graduated from Kingsway in 2017, was a two-time state place-winner. Quinn Kinner, who graduated in 2018, was a two-time state champion and one of the best wrestlers in South Jersey history.

“It is not fair that Cheney Kinner has to come into this wrestling world with the last name Kinner,” Barikian said. “The shadow that Quinn cast is something that no one could live up to.”

Cheney Kinner has been a top wrestler. He won four bouts at the Beast of the East as a freshman. He took second in Region 8 as a sophomore.

But this season has been tough. A natural 138-pounder, Kinner has wrestled mostly at 145 and 152 pounds for the benefit of the team.

“Realistically, Cheney is not a big ’38-pounder," Barikian said. “Cheney has wrestled ‘45 and ‘52 nearly every match. He has taken close loss after close loss after close loss. To good kids.

“But that still can be demoralizing for a person.”

Barikian said that even the Kingsway coaching staff has needed to step back at times and avoid comparing Cheney to his older brothers, especially Quinn Kinner.

“There have been times when sometimes, even as coaches, we had to remind ourselves in Year 1 and Year 2, if his last name wasn’t Kinner we would be like, ‘Yo, we have this phenomenal freshman and this phenomenal sophomore,’” Barikian said. “But everyone looks at him and wants to talk about him relative to Quinn. And that’s not fair.”

Kinner’s low point might have been Friday night, when he lost a decision to Clearview’s John Love for the second time in nine days.

Afterward, Kinner said he heard some disparaging comments.

“People were saying, ‘Oh, you’re not as good as your brothers,’ ” Kinner said.

Barikian knew that Friday night’s loss was tough for Kinner, and that the worst part was the snide remarks and insinuations with regard to his brothers.

“There were some things said that really hit him at the core,” Barikian said. “I told him, ‘Stop. You know who you are. You are going to be the hero in two days.’ ”

Barikian turned out to be a prophet. Entering Sunday with a 22-10 record, Kinner was a key to two impressive victories for the Dragons.

He won by pin in the semifinals against Jackson.

He sealed the state-championship match, jumping into the arms of his teammates after perhaps the most emotional victory of his still-evolving career.

“It’s been a tough season,” Kinner said. “I’ve been wrestling up [in weight]. My record might not show it, but I’ve made a lot of improvements.”