1A State Individual Team Champions

The 1A state champion Avery Vikings includes five individual state champions, two state runners-up and a third-place finisher. Pictured with head coach Matthew Dunn and assistant coach Brandon Burleson are, front row (l to r) Zachary Vance, Lucas Andrews, River Griffith, Bradley Parker and Joe Jordan. Pictured on the back row from left are Dakota Hudson, Seth Blackledge, Jonah Hayes, Ethan Shell, Levi Andrews and Dalton Towe.

Everybody loves a good parade.

Whether it’s in recognition of Independence Day, of Christmas, or even a high school Homecoming, parades are must-see events for locals around Avery County where all the proverbial stops are pulled out and revelry reigns.

Over the past 20 years of association with The Avery Journal-Times, I’ve seen my fair share of parades, and even been part of a couple. From the big-time Independence Day parade and town celebration complete with free watermelon slices in Crossnore to the Parade of Lights at Christmastime in Banner Elk to the lights and sounds of emergency vehicles on a Homecoming Friday afternoon through downtown Newland, young and old alike know something special is happening when a parade rolls through town.

Avery County now has another occasion to celebrate, as the high school’s wrestling team became the first team program to climb to the top of the mountain and capture a state championship. In the 51-year history of Avery County High School, the number of times a team competed in the finals of a state championship in a classification can be counted on one hand, so the occasions to grasp the biggest of brass rings in high school athletics are rare to say the least. For that reason alone, the 2019-20 Avery wrestling program is worthy of recognition the likes of which have not been employed or seen by the school and county.

With five individual state champions, including three multi-time state champs, a dual-team state championship, and an overall team championship-winning score that was higher than any other school in the state, regardless of classification, at the recent NCHSAA state championships in Greensboro, the credentials enough merit acclaim.

What sets this group of champions apart from other teams, aside from the hardware, has been its camaraderie and fixed focus. No individual Viking wrestler was ever bigger than the team, and regardless of the outcome in a bout, win or lose, teammates gathered together and encouraged one another as a unit.

Coach Matthew Dunn and his assistant coaches: Sherman Andrews, Brandon Burleson, Kevin Foster and Waylon Griffith, carried out a game plan of putting their wrestlers in position where they could succeed. For that, as well as the countless hours in wrestling rooms with these wrestlers, many of which began with the founding of Dogtown Wrestling Club nine years ago, they deserve a ton of credit and should be applauded, as well as noted for how to build a program the right way.

I would be remiss, however, if I didn’t also mention another person who played a role in the resurgence of Viking wrestling. Eight years ago, I was interviewing then-head wrestling coach Derrick Calloway, who returned to his alma mater to accept the position of leading the Viking grappling program. In my first interview with him, Calloway repeatedly stressed a return to the rich tradition that exists with Avery County Wrestling, and how, with the right coaches and dedicated student-athletes in place, the program could rise from being average to becoming an elite program once again.

“Fans used to be at Avery matches in huge numbers supporting the team, so we need to start building community rapport and family bonds within the team,” Calloway told me in a July 2012 interview. “I expect to see our wrestlers supporting one another through good times and bad times. We want fans to be excited about wrestling in Avery County, and we have a good foundation with the Dogtown Wrestling Club that has done a great job working with our younger wrestlers…Wrestling has a proud tradition at Avery, and this sport doesn’t come easy. Wrestling takes a lot of hard work. Our kids have to be mentally ready before walking on the mat, which will lead to that relentlessness and, I believe, to success.”

Eight years later, although he moved on following last season to coach at McDowell High School, that vision cast for the Vikings has materialized and shows little signs of slowing down. Graduating just three seniors, though two of which (River Griffith and Lucas Andrews) are leaving the program as state champions, the future for the Big Red is bright. With Avery potentially returning four wrestlers with at least one state individual championship on their respective resumes, along with a crop of additional state placers and grapplers hungry to taste championship gold, Vikings Wrestling may very well be a dynasty in the making.

Before looking years down the road, though, let’s celebrate what was just accomplished by this group. I understand that plans are in the works in the coming weeks to formally recognize the team with the awarding of championship rings to mark their accomplishments, a lasting reminder of the goals attained by this talented group. The way I see it, if other schools can throw parades for their state-championship-winning teams (see Mountain Heritage girls basketball last season, as one example), why not blow out the budget and line the streets for another celebration through the streets of Newland, this time in recognition of one of our teams for a job well done.

Besides, everybody loves a good parade.

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