ROBBINSVILLE — In the 50 years of Avery High School athletics, perhaps no Vikings wrestling team has achieved the level of success garnered by the 2018-19 Big Red grapplers.
Avery continued its historic season last Friday and Saturday, Feb. 8 and 9, by roaring back to overcome host Robbinsville High School to capture the team championship. In the process, five Vikings were crowned individual regional champions and the Big Red qualified an astounding 10 wrestlers for this weekend’s NCHSAA 1A State Championships on Friday and Saturday, Feb. 15 and 16.
“It’s hard to put into words how excited I am for our kids and this program. It’s so rewarding to see all the hard work that they’ve put into this year really pay off, and to see them dominate the way they did and put 10 through, which I believe is an Avery County record,” ACHS head wrestling coach Derrick Calloway said after the weekend concluded. “Just to see that all come to pass, it does mean a little more that it came down at Robbinsville. We were fighting a really hostile environment amongst all the Smoky Mountain Conference teams and there we were. It was a hard-fought championship, that’s for sure. The entire time we were trailing in team points, and our guys really broke loose with Joe Jordan earning a decision, with a pin by Ethan Shell and a pin from River Griffith. Those wins right there were big points that pushed us past Robbinsville and we never looked back.”
The aforementioned Jordan won his first two matches by fall, then earned a 10-3 decision win over Elkin’s David Javier to set up a finals match with Robbinsville’s Jayden Nowell. Jordan earned a 9-0 major decision for his 49th win for the season and a regional title.
At 113 pounds, Shell won his first match by fall in just 17 seconds, followed by another first-period pin to advance to the championship round, where he earned a third-period win by fall over Robbinsville’s Matt Lovin to earn Avery’s second regional championship.
In the 126-pound class, Avery’s Griffith was in a class of his own, dominating the bracket with three-consecutive wins by fall, the final match a first-period fall over Alleghany’s Evan Wagoner, to capture another regional title. Griffith’s performances also netted the junior the Most Outstanding Wrestler award for the entire tournament.
Avery’s Jonah Hayes continued his stellar season on the mat at the 132-pound class, as he claimed a pair of victories to advance to the bracket championship round, where he finished as runner-up in a narrow 2-1 decision against Robbinsville’s Nathan Fisher.
Johnathan Cable continued his late-season surge by qualifying at 138 pounds, finishing with third place after earning a 4-1 decision victory in the consolation finals over Starmount’s Sterlin Holbrook, Cable’s fourth win in the tournament and 36th this season.
Dalton Towe overcame an opening round loss to Alleghany’s Gus Wagoner at 145 pounds to reel off three consecutive victories, including a 4-2 win by decision in a rematch in the consolation semis against Wagoner, to clinch a berth in Greensboro.
Avery’s lone senior, James Russ, qualified for his first state championship at 152 pounds. After winning by fall in his first bout, Russ fell in the championship quarterfinals in sudden victory. Undaunted, Russ wrestled back, winning a match by first-period fall, followed by a 4-2 decision win, then he earned a 5-4 decision victory in the consolation semis to reserve his spot at next week’s state championships.
At 160 pounds, Lane Hoilman drew a tough assignment, as he opened the tournament against eventual regional champion and 39-2 Dustin Blackburn from East Wilkes. In the consolation round, Hoilman faced 21-match winner Matthew Mauro and battled well before coming up short by fall.
Lucas Andrews, wrestling in the 195-pound tournament, continued his outstanding season by capturing the regional championship, earning a victory by technical fall 15-0 in his quarterfinal match, followed by a win in 45 seconds by fall to advance to the championship match. In the final, Andrews outdueled Robbinsville’s Isaac Wilkinson 7-1 for the title.
In the 220-pound class, Lucas’s younger brother, Levi, captured a championship of his own, winning his first three bouts by fall to advance to the championship round. Andrews won a 2-1 decision over Robbinsville’s Kyle Fink to capture his 52nd win of the season and a regional title.
Freshman Zachary Vance, wrestling in the 285-pound class, won his first bout by fall, but came up short in the quarterfinal round against eventual champion Noland Brown from Swain County. In the consolation bracket, Vance wrestled back with a pair of wins by fall, followed by a dramatic reversal and pinfall win over Andrews standout Sammy Christensen to guarantee a fourth-place finish and position in the state tournament.
As a team, Avery garnered 208 points, with Robbinsville in second place with 200.5 points. Swain County (178.5), Mount Airy (105.0) and East Wilkes (101.0) rounded out the top five. Mitchell placed sixth with a team score of 92 points.
Avery did not have any wrestlers compete in the 120-, 170- or 182-pound tournament weight classes.
“What pushed us over the threshold to win this championship were guys outside our usual suspects, the group of seven who have wrestled so consistently this season,” Calloway added. “The ones without a doubt whose performances pushed us to the top were Dalton Towe, James Russ and Zack Vance. They were largely unseeded or low seeded. All three of the guys were in the consolation semifinals and losing in the third period, and all three battled back and earned pins.
“When Zack bridged back over his opponent and got the pin, the place went crazy. It looked like a ‘David and Goliath’ kind of battle when you looked at them face value, but to see Zack get that win was just amazing to watch. Dalton faced a guy in the consolations who had pinned him earlier in the tournament, and that can be tough mentally. But Dalton hung in there and kept the match close, and dug deep in that third period. He showed the heart of a champion by pinning the kid to go to the state tournament.”
Avery will begin state competition with the first two rounds of championship bracket action starting at 2:30 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 15, at the Greensboro Coliseum Complex.