Wrestler of the Year: Cristian Hercules-Pleitez — name of a champion

Published 12:01 am Tuesday, March 7, 2023

By David Shaw

MOUNT ULLA — With a name like Cristian Hercules-Pleitez, it’s hard to go unnoticed.

Yet West Rowan’s recently crowned 3A state champion and Dutch Meyer Award winner can still recall the day he was bit by the wrestling bug, triggering a metamorphosis that’s made him headline news.

“I remember I wasn’t a wrestler at all,” the senior heavyweight explained, just days after pinning four opponents in 4:14 at Greensboro Coliseum and becoming West’s first state titlist since 1990. “By eighth grade I was just planning to finish school and go to work like my father. I was going to be a working man.”

An admirable ambition, indeed. But a path that serendipitously diverged some five years ago, when a revered middle school coach named Raye Brothers offered a tempting suggestion. “I was in his business class at West Middle,” Hercules-Pleitez remembered. “And there I was, a little soft, about 245 (pounds), this big kid with big hands. He took one look at me and said, ‘You know, we need a heavyweight. Why don’t you come out for the team?’ And that’s how it started for me.”

Fast-forward to Feb. 18, when his right arm was raised for the 50th time this season and a championship medal was draped around his neck. Shortly after pinning Central Davidson’s Jackson Greene in 1:51 in the state final, Hercules-Pleitez’s mind was racing and wandering.

“I was thinking about all the people who helped me get there,” he said. “I remember losing my very first match, and Coach Brothers threatening to start calling me ‘Cupcake.’ He’s the real reason I’m here now. I ended up going 11-1, went to the (middle school) tournament and lost. But that’s when I realized what it would take.”

It was another loss, his only 2022-23 setback, that propelled him this winter. After winning his first 27 matches, he was stunned 2-1 in overtime by Ragsdale’s Alexzander Little in the Jan. 7 Gavin Sharpe Tournament in Mooresville. “Oh my god, do we have to talk about that?” Hercules-Pleitez inquired, shielding his face and turning his head to one side.

Longtime West coach John Brown — a 1992 state champ for East Rowan — was more forthright.

“The loss was perfect timing,” he said. “Cristian needed that loss to get where he was going. He wasn’t cocky, but he was beating everybody. His mindset almost became, ‘I’m there.’ That loss helped him refocus. He was good then, but after that loss he took it to another level. You could actually see some fire in his face.”

It was a devastating and unexpected loss, one that left Hercules-Pleitez questioning his training routine and long-established elite ability. “The good thing is I had teammates who egged me on,” he said with a boyish smile. “Mention this kid: Kevin O’Brien. For the next few days, he bothered me so much. He kept saying, ‘Alex is gonna get you. He’s gonna show up in the states and take your title.’ That made me so mad, I started beating up on people in practice.”

Suddenly, he was wired hotter than a Chevelle with a 396. And while Little failed to qualify for the state tournament, Hercules-Pleitez went on a history-making tear, muscling across the finish line with machine-like efficiency. He pinned 22 of his next 23 opponents, breezed through the regionals and cleared the room in the state meet —  where he flattened Swansboro’s Hyuga Doreus in 21 seconds, Lee County’s Wyatt Rickard in 1:20 and F.T. Foard’s Sam Bolch in 42 seconds. In the championship match, he simply out-techniqued Greene.

“(Greene) circled more. That was his strategy,” Hercules-Pleitez reported. “I think he was trying to tire me out, but I don’t do that. I haven’t wrestled much in the third period, maybe since the beginning of the season when my gas tank was terrible. Afterward he told me he was just trying to make it out of the first period. I get it. I caught him with a barbed-wire and pinned him with a reverse half.”

It’s worth noting the advice West assistant coach Danny Misenheimer provided before the final.

“Coach Mize came to me and said, ‘It’s just another match. Don’t think it’s anything special,’ ” he said. “I’ve been having this discussion with my friend Abe (Davis) all year. The only one who can beat me is me. To be considered a good wrestler — in my own eyes — I’d have to go to states, pin my way to the finals and get a pin there. We had a word for it: dominate. On Snapchat we’d send little messages, like ‘Don’t just wrestle. Wrestle to dominate.’ ”

Hercules-Pleitez finished his prep season with 48 pins and a career record of 109-25. He’s currently training for the Virginia Beach Nationals, scheduled March 23-25, where a top-eight finish would make him an All-American. “Won’t be easy, but everything counts,” he’s decided.

Next comes another pivotal decision. He hopes to choose a college this spring. Belmont Abbey has formerly offered him a roster spot. UNC Pembroke and Mount Olive have shown interest. “But my big dream,” he indicated, “is to go D-I — N.C. State, UNC, App State — local schools that are ranked nationally.”

Before dispersing, ending an hour-long interview, Brown was asked to describe Hercules-Pleitez with adjectives. He answered with nouns.

“It’s nothing more than hard work, self-discipline and determination,” the coach said. “Not just wrestling, but in every area. He started going to Combat — a training facility in Mocksville. He hit the weight room hard. He wrestled in the off-season and learned from everyone. Those are the kind of things that make state champions.”

And make working men everywhere proud.