By Lee Noles
MONROE – The practice area for the Central Academy of Technology and Arts wrestling team is barely noticeable when walking down one of the school’s many hallways.
The room, however, isn’t like any other at the school. This is the place where for the past 12 seasons CATA’s once fledgling program has turned into a well-oiled machine that churns out top-flight wrestlers at an impressive rate.
Since the program’s inception in 2007, the Cougars have won five individual state championships, added four runner-ups to go with 30 conference and 13 individual regional titles. Six former Cougars have gone on to wrestle in college.
This year isn’t any different as CATA was picked No. 1 in the preseason 2A poll by rankwrestlers.com and are 15-0 after wins over Weddington, Charlotte Latin and Cox Mill.
Not bad for a program that had to convert a room that held heating and air-conditioning units into its current practice facility.
“Over at this corner we had pipes that were running into one side of the room,” said CATA coach Mike Jacobus, who has been with the program since the start. “Over here was a 300-pound utility sink … There was a lot of work that had to be done and we had a lot of parent volunteers to help.”
Much like the room, CATA had to go through its own transformation. There were no state qualifiers the first year, as the program limped to its only losing season with a 5-8 record. The break out came in 2010 when Will Robinson and Daniel Gregorich each brought home state titles in their respected weight classes.
“It was huge,” Jacobus said. “Now we had someone in the room who has stood on top of the podium and brought home a state title … That is one of our goals is to win state championships.”
Experience may be a big reason why CATA is favored to do it all again this season. Jake Dodson, Hunter Ross and Cade Haines have each placed in the top three at the state tournament. Preston Scarborough joins the trio as current wrestlers who have won either a conference or regional title.
Ross went 45-4 last year as a freshman and placed third in the state in the 106-pound weight class. He’s 17-0 this season, but says maintaining the tradition is a top priority.
“I kind of feel like they did their job for four years, and did a great job,” Ross said of previous wrestlers. “And now I have to come in here and do my job.”
A tough schedule may also factor into what the Cougars can accomplish this year. Jacobus purposely seeks out opponents in larger classifications or teams that wrestle a certain style so his team can adapt to a variety of techniques. CATA went to a tournament in Pinecrest this year where Jacobus said the wrestlers were technically sound. More recently, the Cougars returned from a three-team match against Chesterfield and Cheraw that Jacobus described as fast and explosive.
The matches against bigger schools have another positive effect for Haines, who was a state-runner up a year ago as he finished 40-4. He is currently 17-1 and recently helped CATA capture a nine-team tournament at Marvin Ridge by winning the 160-pound division.
“It’s more of a confidence booster,” the senior said. “You would think a 3A or 4A school would be more dominant, but small little CATA, a 2A school, comes in and does really well.”
Another big factor in the program’s success is the family atmosphere Jacobus has created. Although a typical practice has the precision and focus usually associated with top-tiered programs, the Cougars keep warm-ups light-hearted with jokes and friendly banter.
“It’s very important,” said Dodson, who was a runner up as a freshman at the state tournament in 2017 and is 17-0 this season as a junior. “I feel like we are a family. We are the closest thing I know to a team. I know that for a fact.”
Dodson and Scarborough each reached their own individual milestone this year as they eclipsed 100 wins for their career. Scarborough, a junior, is 17-1 this season.
Freshmen Kyle Montaperto, Elijah Harris, Brady Ross and Aiden Curry complement the veterans by combining to go 53-2 in their first year with the program. Also, heavyweight Nick Swayze is a third-year wrestler who is 18-0 this year.
The team-first mentality has expressed itself in other unique ways, too. Haines said when programs go to states they typically get a particular haircut, usually a dyed-blonde look. But this year Haines, Dodson and other CATA wrestlers are doing something different, opting to grow mullets for the state championship.
“Nobody else does that type,” Haines said. “We wanted to have some funky haircuts.”
They’re hoping the haircuts and team-first approach may get them over the hump. For all of CATA’s vast accomplishments, a team state title is something that has eluded them. Their best showing came when they finished third in 2012, but the missing accolade is something the group would love to change.
“It would be a big accomplishment,” Dodson said. “Winning states is a team goal, to go along with all of our individual goals. But to win states is something we aim for and want to do.”