North wrestlers ranked second in state

Published 12:00 am Thursday, January 12, 2012

By Mike London
SPENCER — “So Close” reads the broad headline on the framed newspaper clipping from last February’s 1A state championship match.
That frame hangs in North Rowan’s cozy wrestling room for motivation. It’s a constant reminder of serious accomplishment and serious pain.
“As soon as that match was over I started thinking about winning in 2012,” said North junior heavyweight Will Robertson, who’s ranked second in 1A. “We only lost two starters and we’ve filled those spots very well.”
North, whose most recent days as a wrestling monster were in the late 1960s, emerged from nowhere to finish as 2011 runner-up to West Wilkes. The Cavaliers have dedicated this season to eliminating the gap between themselves and the still-powerful defending champs, who reside in Miller’s Creek.
“Our schedule’s been very challenging,” North head coach Tim Pittman said. “We’ve gone after the best teams in the state to prepare for February. The only 1As that we’ve wrestled are the ones in our league.”
North (23-4) finished sixth in the loaded “King of the Mat” tournament in Welcome, and has split two struggles with 3A power Southwestern Randolph.
North’s other three team losses were to 4As — Davie, Pinecrest and Mooresville.
Davie, coached by former Cavalier hero Buddy Lowery, is ranked second in the 4A Coaches Poll, while Pinecrest is fourth. Mooresville is ranked ninth in the 4A tournament team listings published by Retro Rankings.
The loss to Davie was by two points. The setback to Mooresville came down to an overtime struggle between Robertson and Mooresville’s top-notch heavy Zach Brown.
“Wrestling good 4As has really helped us,” Pittman said. “We couldn’t have bought a match with Mooresville or Davie before last season, but this year they were calling us.”
Put an asterisk next to all the losses. North wasn’t at full strength for any of them. Three starters missed the Mooresville match. Two were out for Davie.
“People see we’re pretty tough, but no one has seen our full lineup yet,” Pittman said. “We’ve had injuries, but we’re pretty deep and our young kids have stepped in.”
Xavier Robinson, ranked sixth at 182, was on the shelf a while after suffering a dislocated shoulder in football.
Brandon Lemmon, who is ranked fourth in 1A at 132 pounds, dealt with a severely sprained wrist.
A.J. Chambers, a state qualifier in 2011, hasn’t been available since Christmas due to a dislocated elbow, but his target date for clearance is Jan. 27. He’ll make North tough to beat at 160.
“I didn’t start wrestling until my freshman year,” Chambers said. “But it came natural to me, and once Coach Pittman came here I really started doing well.”
Josh Mock had a string of pins at 152 before suffering a concussion. Mock is expected to be good to go by the end of this month. Thomas Tucker, who’s been handling 152 duties, should be able to drop back to 145 at that point.
As is the case in boys basketball, North is now 1A only in classification, not in terms of depth or talent.
Eight Cavs are currently ranked in the top six in 1A in their weight class, with Giancarlo Solorzano topping the rankings at 106 pounds and Thomas Fowler leading the pack at 170. Wrestling at 160 last season, Fowler was North’s most accomplished individual. He was state runner-up.
Other ranked Cavaliers include Marc Gonzalez (No. 2 at 106), Tyler Powers (No. 5 at 120), Damon Ellis (No. 5 at 126), Lemmon, Robinson and Robertson.
North is most powerful at the smaller weights where it has several guys who got involved in wrestling in elementary school and still wrestle virtually year-round.
As a team, North is ranked second in 1A in both polls. Needless to say, West Wilkes, which has three wrestlers ranked No. 1 in 1A, is at the top of both polls.
Of the 21 first-place votes cast by coaches, West Wilkes got 20, while North got one, so the Cavaliers still qualify as the hunters rather than the hunted.
“It wasn’t me that voted for us,” Pittman said with a smile. “But there’s one coach out there that believes we’re No. 1.”
The surge of success in Spencer — North has won the last two Rowan County championships — has been built quickly by Pittman and his assistants, Darrick Green and former East state champion Travis Lindsay.
Pittman focuses energy on the little guys, while Green instructs the large ones. Lindsay, a master technician, has helped the whole lineup minimize mistakes.
Pittman wrestled at 126 pounds for East for coach Barry Justus and got involved with East’s “Wild Ponies” program for youngsters after graduating college. From there, Pittman began a youth program in the West Rowan area. Eventually the East and West programs evolved into a countywide organization that has been supported by a lot of people.
“Our success has been a Rowan County effort, not just North,” Pittman said. “ Salisbury Parks and Rec has a wrestling room at Hall Gym, and that’s given us access to mats year-round.”
When Pittman was hired at North prior to last season, the Cavs hadn’t been a major factor in a while.
“They’d been seventh in the conference the previous year,” Pittman said. “It took a little while to get them all to believe they could be winners, but by the end of last season they were saying, ‘Hey, we can do this.’ ”
Robertson remembers the days when wrestling wasn’t the priority it is now.
“We had 20 matches my freshman year, but this year it’ll be about 50,” Robertson said. “Coach Pittman is just really committed and puts a lot of time in. We’ve got athletes here, and he went up and down the halls getting them out for wrestling.”
Eugene Coney has been Pittman’s pet project this year. Expected to be a basketball player in the winter months, he’s given the wrestling program a boost.
“He’s probably overcome more than anyone,” Pittman said. “He only weighs 171, but he competes at 195.”
North had six qualifiers for the state individual tournament last winter. All six are back, so there have been expectations since the first day of practice. North has responded to the challenge.
The Cavs opened the YVC with an 83-0 wipeout of Albemarle and battered South Stanly the same night.
“That was probably our best fundamental night,” Pittman said. “Everything we’d been talking about, we went out and did. It’s like we were putting on a clinic.”
Things will happen quickly for the Cavaliers now.
The YVC tournament is Feb. 4 at East Montgomery.
On Tuesday, Feb. 7, the first two rounds of the playoffs take place, with two more rounds on Feb. 9. State semifinals and the championship are Saturday, Feb. 11.
Pittman’s on top of the brackets and expects North to have a challenging first-round match on the road against sixth-ranked Monroe’s Central Academy.
But the Cavs have spent the season getting ready, and they should have that full lineup Pittman has been dreaming about very soon.
“We’ve been facing such a jump in competition all year that 1A matches shouldn’t be hard,” Chambers said. “We have so much experience we should blow most 1A teams right out of the water.”
Maybe they’ll get that rematch with West Wilkes. And maybe this time the Cavaliers can hang a headline that reads — “State Champs!”