A trying but satisfying year for Gray’s Creek’s wrestlers

By Earl Vaughan Jr. 

A 23rd place finish in an event may not sound like a cause for huge celebration but considering the challenges that Earl Horan III faced with the Gray’s Creek High School wrestling program this year, it might have seemed on par with winning an Olympic medal. 

Horan recently guided the Gray’s Creek High School wrestling team to the 23rd spot in the team standings in the N.C. High School Athletic Association state 3-A wrestling tournament.

So, what’s so special about that? Several things. It was the highest finish in the state 3-A tournament of any of the five Cumberland County teams that entered.

Horan is normally the assistant coach for the Bears wrestling team, which is headed by Bryan Esterly. But two weeks before the season officially started, Esterly had to step down due to a family emergency.

That left Horan in charge, which was an extra challenge for him. Horan is a single parent, the father of a young adult son, Earl “Early Bird” Horan IV, who was born with Down syndrome.

The elder Horan was used to scheduling time for practice and some of the duties of coaching wrestling, but other things were new to him. That included keeping the statistics of the team updated on the trackwrestling website, organizing and running practice and filling out a variety of forms.

There was also the challenge of coaching during the COVID-19 pandemic. Early in the season practice was moved outdoors. Horan had to frequently remind his wrestlers to wear their required masks.

“We had to keep six feet distance,’’ he said. “Guys had to shadow wrestle, where you just wrestle by yourself and go through the moves.’’

Only 10 athletes went out for wrestling this season at Gray’s Creek, which meant Horan had to strategize for each match to try to get as many wrestlers as he could on the mat and not have to forfeit matches.

“I was blessed with the fact the 10 guys we had were very committed and very coachable and would do what they had to do to get to wrestle,’’ Horan said. “They would jump through any hoops they had to because they wanted to be there.’’

Of the 10 wrestlers on his team, three qualified for the state tournament. Unfortunately, Horan had to scratch 106-pound Jerald Brown who was still suffering symptoms from a concussion he incurred before the tournament.

“He’s just a sophomore and has a lot more wrestling ahead of him,’’ Horan said.

The two wrestlers who competed in the tournament were 285-pound Garrett Crockett and 126-pound Richard Williams.

Crockett earned one win in the state meet before losing 3-2 in the quarterfinals.

“It was a heartbreaker,’’ Horan said of Crockett’s loss. “He had been pinning everybody. He had more pins in the postseason than most wrestlers do the whole season.’’

That left Williams at 126 pounds to carry the load for the Bears.

He didn’t lose until the semifinals, then came back to score a win in the consolation round for a third-place finish. He ended the year with a 22-1 record.

“Richard is an amazing athlete,’’ Horan said. “His wrestling is a violent ballet. He’s so smooth. He has this blank expression on his face where it doesn’t look like he’s exuding any energy.

“He’s a very knowledgeable wrestler. That makes him a dangerous guy. He’s a junior so we expect the world for him next year.’’

• Williams was one of six Cumberland County wrestlers who made the top four in their weight classes this year and got to appear on the medal stand in a state tournament.

There were three placers in each of the two state tournaments county wrestlers competed in, the 3-A and 4-A.

In the 4-A tournament, South View recorded the highest finish of any county team, scoring 28 points to finish 15th.

The Tigers’ Kareem Crawford was the only county wrestler to reach a state championship match, finish second at 285 pounds. 

Also placing in the 4-A tournament were South View’s Joshua George, who was fourth at 220 pounds, and Jack Britt’s Joseph Lock, third at 160 pounds.

In the 3-A tournament along with Gary’s Creek’s Williams, Christian Coto of Terry Sanford placed fourth at 126 pounds while Cape Fear’s Calan Staub was third at 145 pounds.