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The annual 3-A Big East Conference duals wrestling tournament teetered upon the verge of being decided by total points among three teams in the Hunt High gym on Saturday.
But clutch victories by sophomore Taylor Gay at 120 pounds, sophomore Garrett Weaver at 126 and senior Linton Holmes at 138 vaulted Fike to a 42-33 come-from-behind conquest of Southern Nash and to its third consecutive championship in undefeated style.
The Golden Demons conquered Franklinton, Northern Nash, Hunt, Rocky Mount and finally Southern Nash, also the runner-up in 2017, in the round-robin format in compiling a 5-0 record.
If Southern Nash had prevailed in the final-round showdown, the Firebirds, Fike and conference newcomer Franklinton would have finished with 4-1 records. The champion would have been decided on the basis of total points.
But Franklinton came away the runner-up at 4-1. followed by Southern Nash (3-2), Hunt (2-3) and Rocky Mount (1-4). Northern Nash, which entered the tournament with 12 wrestlers and exited with nine, failed to win a match.
“I have been working for this for four years,” Holmes, state-ranked No.6 in the 138-pound class by the Ranked Wrestler site, exclaimed. “It feels great winning, but I feel like this year is the best one because of the way we carried ourselves and because of the way we won.”
Holmes reflected on the death of head coach Mike Wickham earlier this month, staff issues and other forms of adversity. He praised his teammates for coming together and doing the job.
“It’s not all about the winning,” Holmes emphasized. “I really got much more out of winning and losing this year.
Despite a 9-0 start with physical wins from sophomore 170-pounder Joseph Speight and senior 182-pounder Isaiah Proctor, Fike trailed most of its match against the Firebirds.
But the turnaround was launched with sophomore Taylor Gay’s tense 4-2 decision at 120. Senior Garrett Weaver’s pin at 126 sent the Demons out front, and Holmes padded the margin with a pin.
“My coaches and teammates have been pushing me hard,” said Holmes, who departed with a sensational 40-4 record. “I have been working on specific moves that I feel good about. I knew I had to try my best to get the pin. I stayed focused; I knew what I had to do to get the job done.”
Holmes hinted that he executed the pin with a new move.
“No name to it yet,” he remarked with a grin, “but I will have one for it.”
Forfeits threatened to influence the final score, but Fike coaches were surprised upon learning Southern Nash would have to forfeit the final of 14 matches with its 160-pounder being injured.
“We could have beaten Franklinton, and we were really (hyped) up to beat Fike,” said Firebirds senior 182-pounder Zach Coble. “Overall, I believe we wrestled very well. There were moments in matches when we could have done better. It’s all about staying plugged in.”
Head coach Eddie Coble spoke proudly of Southern Nash’s performance against Fike and said his wrestlers matched up with the Demons better than he expected.
“We are going to fight,” he declared. “That’s one thing we preach. We may be outmanned but we will always fight. We wrestled hard.”
The Firebirds were dealt a 43-30 loss by Franklinton in Round 2, while Fike opened with a 42-27 conquest of Franklinton.
“Fike has good coaches and good athletes,” Eddie Coble noted. “That’s a great mix.”
Added Franklinton head coach Josh Igims: “We had a tough match with Fike and that, honestly, decided it. We knew Fike would be our toughest opponent. They pulled out pins and we didn’t.”
The Red Rams seized the championship in their final season in the 2-A Northern Carolina Conference.
Igims didn’t deny that fatigue was a factor as his Rams sputtered in their last two matches.
“I think everybody is tired,” he said. “A lot of us came off not practicing the entire week. We did pretty good.”
Fike, state-ranked No. 12 in 3-A, got 5-0 showings and four pins from Holmes and sophomore 145-pounder Aaron Bancroft, state-ranked No. 3. Ranked third at 106, senior Blake Edwards finished 5-0.
Also going unbeaten were junior 170-pounder Ben Hornyak and junior 160-pounder J.C. Fairchild of Franklinton, senior 195-pounder Jesus Raya of Southern Nash, senior 220-pounder Tanner Klutey and senior heavyweight Latrell Ruffin of Hunt, and the Rocky Mount trio of senior 132-pounder Keyonte Williams, senior 120-pounder Rahsen Lawrence and junior 106-pounder David Jacobs.
Fike assistant coach George Bancroft cited Hunt’s Klutey for the top feat of the tournament.
Klutey debuted his senior season after finally making weight and his four pins
included spilling Franklinton’s state-ranked Michael Rogers, a junior, from the undefeated ranks.
Shoulder injuries hampered Klutey much of his junior season.
Klutey insisted he was not surprised at his showing and assured his goal is a state-championship ring.
“I feel great and I feel healthy,” he declared. “My mental state is the best it has been. I expect a lot. I’m a state contender.
Klutey credited the Warriors for “doing great. We have a lot of stuff to work on, but we have got the people and quality we need.
The Hunt senior contended Fike prevailed because: “They have the quality of wrestlers willing to drill like crazy. And they have great coaching. (Bancroft) is the mad scientist of wrestling.”
Interim Fike head coach Bradley Watson expressed pride in his wrestlers.
“Southern Nash is always tough,” he said .”But I am very pleased. Our conduct was extremely good and everybody did their job.”
Fike benefited from at least one win in each weight class represented.
Next up: The Big East individual championships Saturday at Fike High.