County wrestling tournament Saturday includes girls division for first time
Published 12:01 am Sunday, December 11, 2022
By David Shaw
MOUNT ULLA — That wasn’t Santa clattering on the roof of West Rowan’s gymnasium Friday afternoon.
It was longtime Falcons’ coach John Brown making preparations for the new-look Rowan County Wrestling Tournament, scheduled for Saturday in Mount Ulla.
“We’re going to shine a spotlight on the championship matches,” Brown said at his school office. “A solo spotlight. But this gym has skylights, so if it’s not dark enough in there I have to black them out. That’s why I’m on the roof, putting plastic sheets on top of the skylights.”
Participants and spectators won’t be disappointed. The 34th annual RoCo championship features five county schools — all but North Rowan — and promises to burnish the credentials of established wrestlers and make heroes of ordinary matmen and women. That’s right — for the first time, and one year ahead of NCHSAA sanction status — there will be a girl’s division. Currently 34 states have approved state championships for girls.
“That’s what we’re most excited about,” Brown said. “It’s a growing sport. We expect 15-20 girls to wrestle next weekend. We’ve got six and I think East (Rowan) has four or five. Carson and Salisbury have a few each and South I’m not sure about. We’ll run that tournament the same way as the boys and give medals to the top three finishers. If there’s only one girl in a weight class, she gets the medal. They’ll wrestle under the light and get an MOW just like the boys. The only difference is we’re not going to keep a team score for the girls.”
Among the foremost females is East Rowan’s Leah Edwards, a 120-pound sophomore who finished second at 113 in last year’s tournament. She was half of a trailblazing duo, joining teammate Jasmyne Brown (2nd at 106) as the county’s first female finalists. “From what I’ve heard talking to the other coaches, it will get a little bigger next year when it becomes a sanctioned sport,” Brown said. “There’s going to be paid coaches and everything.”
The tournament will use a traditional, single-elimination format. Weigh-ins are scheduled for 8 a.m. and first-round matches should begin around 9. A junior varsity tournament will run concurrently in the nearby cafeteria. Admission is $10.
The host Falcons are once again favored to claim the team championship. West has won the past four tourneys — and six since the extravaganza began in 1987 — and boasts returning wrestlers in 13 of 14 weight classes. Seven earned first-place ribbons a year ago, when West won handily. It has captured its first eight dual meets this season and prevailed in the recent West Rowan Thanksgiving Invitational, outpointing 11 opponents.
“Well,” Brown said with a hint of apprehension, “you still have to go out and wrestle. Nothing is ever a given.”
West has three entrants who placed in last February’s 3A state tournament. Senior Jacob Perry (138) was a third-place finisher at 126 pounds and won of his first 13 bouts this season. Unbeaten heavyweight Christian Hercules was fourth in the state. Both are defending county champs. Sophomore Kevin O’Brien (132) reached the podium as a sixth-place finisher at 120. He was unbeaten through 13 matches this season.
Other headliners include South Rowan’s Kincaid twins and younger brother Mason, who captured the county 170 crown as a freshman in 2021. Teammate Mateo Diaz Ruiz was a county champion at 113 pounds and fourth in the state at 106. But lost to graduation is Jacob Cox (138), Rowan’s only three-time state champion, who is wrestling for N.C. State this year. “At first he was going there to focus on schoolwork,” Brown noted. “But he’s wrestling for them right now. He must have been a walk-on or something. He’s not starting, but he’s on the team.”
East Rowan junior Shayden Edwards (145), older sibling of Leah, was named Most Outstanding Wrestler at West’s holiday tournament. He didn’t participate in last year’s county tournament but finished third in the Midwest Regional at 132 and gained a first-round win in the state meet. He finished with 26 victories and 20 pins. Carson has an elite wrestler in Christian Kluttz, a senior who went 28-11 and suffered a first-round fall in last season’s state tournament. He lost to Perry in last year’s 132 county final.
There are three first-year coaches in the county: East’s Shane Miller, Carson’s Brad Kluttz and Salisbury’s Jaleel Hitchens — a former North Rowan wrestler and defensive back. Brown and South’s John Kincaid are holdovers. Former South Iredell coach Brent Bustle will serve as tournament director.
“I’m definitely excited,” Brown finished. “Real excited about the girls getting a team and all that. Hope I can get more to come out next year. This year, with it not being a sanctioned sport, you gotta throw it all together with the boys. That’s something I’ve never liked, girls wrestling boys. But this, this year is a new start.”
And a new chapter of Rowan County history.