Cape Fear wrestlers try to continue success despite challenges
By Earl Vaughan Jr.
Another season of successful wrestling is nothing new for Heath Wilson at Cape Fear High School, where the Colts have been known for their prowess in the sport going back to the days of Fayetteville Sports Club Hall of Fame and state champion wrestling coach Mike Stanbridge.
But Wilson, a former state champion wrestler himself, admits things have been a little different this year and will continue to be as the wrestling season heads into the postseason.
Normally a winter sport, the N.C. High School Athletic Association delayed the start of wrestling this year to the end of April because of the pandemic.
Wrestling in spring versus wrestling in the winter wasn’t that big a change for Wilson and his team, but with postseason tournaments ahead, things could get difficult.
Because some COVID-protocols are still in place, Cumberland County athletic teams are not permitted to travel out of county and stay overnight for athletic competitions.
In the upcoming NCHSAA regional and state tournaments, that will present a problem for wrestling. Tournaments at that level often take two days, with weigh-ins held as early as 7 a.m.
“It’s all the COVID restrictions that give me such angst,’’ Wilson said.
Another problem this season is those restrictions haven’t allowed Cape Fear or any county wrestling team to travel outside the county border to wrestle.
Wilson is accustomed to taking his wrestlers not only across the state but in some cases outside its borders to seek the best possible competition available.
“That’s where my aggravation is,’’ he said after spending the season competing locally against only county wrestlers. “We’re kind of getting our hands tied behind our backs.’’
Numbers have also been a problem. Wilson has often had more than 40 wrestlers to try out for his team. Currently, he only has one backup wrestler available and just enough on his roster to fill the rest of the slots in the lineup.
Cape Fear wrapped up the regular season title in the Patriot Athletic Conference earlier this week with a 14-0 record. Wilson has four wrestlers who will head into the postseason with perfect records. They include Samuel Aponte at 106, Calan Staub at 152 and Jaden Paul at 182 all 14-0. Vincent Valentin at 275 is 13-0.
Cape Fear will host the conference wrestling tournament on Wednesday with action starting at 4 p.m. He hopes the late afternoon starting time will allow as many parents as possible to attend while still permitting the slimmed-down tournament field to finish action before too late in the day.
WIlson’s biggest worry after the conference tournament is how he will prepare his wrestlers for the unknown as they face opponents from outside the county that they haven’t had a chance to see on the mat this season.
That’s where he’s counting on the rich tradition of Cape Fear wrestling and the memories his current team has of the performances of past state champions at the school. “They all left a little bit of something in the room with each individual that’s still there,’’ Wilson said of the earlier Colt winners like Mike Vernagallo, Marcelion Aponte III and Wilson’s own son, Dallas.
The one thing he’s certain he can do is make sure his wrestlers are in the best shape possible no matter who they face at the state level. “Even though he is more talented, if he makes it to the third period and he’s gassed, we still have that opportunity to win,’’ Wilson said. “I take pride in that, and the team does to.’’
One wrestler who agrees is Paul, who was fourth in the state in the 3-A 170-pound weight class last season.
Despite the limited opportunity to compete this season, Paul thinks he’s a completely different wrestler. “My offense is better, and I’ve grown mentally,’’ he said.
He’s been competing at 182 pounds most of this season but plans to return to 170 for the playoffs because he feels he’s quicker at that level.
Despite the limitations he and his teammates have faced, he’s taking a positive attitude into the postseason.
“We’ve just got to keep wrestling and get more confident,’’ he said. “We know we are the best.’’
PHOTO OF THE WEEK
Terry Sanford 3, Overhills 0
Jack Britt 9, Hoke County 7
Overhills 3, South View 2
Cape Fear 11, Overhills 0
Gray’s Creek 6, Pine Forest 3
Terry Sanford 10, South View 1
Pinecrest 11, Jack Britt