West Rowan wrestlers advance to Round 3 on Wednesday

Published 12:00 am Sunday, January 29, 2023

By David Shaw


MOUNT ULLA — Christian Hercules-Pleitez and the third-ranked West Rowan wrestling team saved room for dessert on Saturday.

After devouring the regular season — winning county, conference and SPC tournament titles — the host Falcons helped themselves to victories in both the first and second rounds of the 3A dual team state playoffs. West needed just 21 minutes to sweep past Montgomery Central 45-30 in Round 1, then outslugged North Gaston 42-31 in a Round 2 match that had some genuine nastiness to it.

“Our expectations as a team were to come out of this first and second round in good shape,” West coach John Brown said after the Falcons (25-0) advanced to Wednesday night’s state quarterfinals. “But like I told these guys beforehand, we should win these first two matches. But I also told them we’re wrestling two very good teams — and if we lay down, we could be going home just like last year. Thank goodness we didn’t lay down.”

On the contrary, West rose to the occasion and built insurmountable leads against both 14th-ranked Montgomery Central (40-10) and No. 11 North Gaston (31-6), a squad that benefited from an unsportsmanlike infraction to edge Stuart Cramer, 36-35 in Round 1. Four Falcons prevailed twice — including Hercules-Pleitez, the state’s top-ranked 3A heavyweight who secured his 99th and 100th career victories.

“It’s been a long time coming,” he said with a relieved smile. “I remember my freshman year I had a losing record (9-11) and that really opened my eyes. You learn what it takes to win. It makes getting there that much better.”

Brown remembers the moment Hercules-Pleitez made a career-altering decision.

“Out of everybody in our room, he had a goal as a freshman to win a state championship,” Brown recalled. “I take him home every day and one time he told me, ‘I’m gonna win a state championship by my senior year.’ As a coach, you want to hear that. But you also know how much training and work it takes. A lot of guys don’t do it, but Hercules has done exactly that. Now he’s got a real good chance.”

Hercules-Pleitez improved to 41-1 this season with a pair of first-period pins. He stopped Montgomery Central’s Jeremiah Cassidy in a 57 seconds, then flattened NG’s Zach McGaha in 1:14, setting off a well-deserved celebration in the West corner. “In both matches,” he offered, “I caught them with a move called a butcher, a barbed wire. It’s become my signature move this year.”

Other double winners for West included Jathan Roby 106 pounds, Eli Jenkins at 170 and Dakota Athey at 182. In Round 1 the Falcons used seven pins and Jenkins’ 7-2 decision to open a 45-0 lead, then strategically forfeited the final five bouts. They spent the next hour waiting for North Gaston to complete its opening-round triumph.

“I looked at that as an advantage,” Brown said, “because we got to watch the other match and scout them a little bit wider than we already had. Also, we get six or seven guys that didn’t have to wrestle and they were fresh for the next round. They still had all of their gas.”

West needed all of it in the second round. The Falcons were nursing a 9-7 lead after Hunter Miller — wrestling up a weight class at 220 — twice needed to use injury time in what became a feisty, ill-tempered 11-6 loss to North Gaston freshman Gage Phalin. Miller was poked in the eye and later penalized a point for grabbing Phalen’s singlet, eventually losing his focus. “I think (Phalin) may have gotten into Hunter’s head,” Brown explained. “And that’s what did it. I think if he wrestles that guy 10 times, he wins nine of them.

The matched turned in West’s favor almost immediately afterward. The Falcons earned pins in six of the final seven matches and constructed a 42-13 lead when Jacob Perry (34-6 at 138) leveled Tripp Norwood in 1:40. West then forfeited the last three matches and sent its big matinee crowd home early.

“At the beginning of the year our goal was to win the state championship,” said Jenkins, the freshman with a 28-5 record. “Now it’s getting crazy because we’re two rounds closer. Nobody wants to say it, but we’re all hopeful.”

Roby wants to say it. “We’re all growing together, always advancing,” he said after improving to 33-5. “But now we’ve got to keep doing our jobs.”

It’s a goal that stands three victories away. Round 3 is scheduled Wednesday night at a central location against second-seeded Eastern Guilford. A win pushes West into the Western state championship match 15 minutes later against the Fred T. Foard-Enka winner. And a win there lays out a red carpet to the 3A state final next Saturday in Greensboro.

“Eastern Guilford is really good,” Brown concluded while directing a gymnasium clean-up. “If we wrestle bad, we could be in trouble. But if they wrestle bad, they could be in trouble. The west is really strong as usual, and Fred T. Foard has to be the favorite. In past years, everyone knew they were going to win. But maybe not this year. If another team wrestles like it’s supposed to, like it knows it can, things could flip.”

And that would mean another visit from the dessert cart.