MONROE – After St. Stephens upended Piedmont, the two-time defending dual team champions, earlier this season to take that championship, Panther coach Jamie Belk knew his team would have two more shots to take them down.
At the Feb. 9 regional championship, the Panthers got individual titles from Jake Cauble, Tripp Collins, Bailey Wicker and Colby Funderburk and cruised to the 3A Western Regional title.
At the individual championship, the Panthers were once again fantastic.
They sent seven qualifiers to the tournament and five of them placed, including Collins and Josh Blatt, who pulled out some redemption of his own.
At 113 pounds, Collins pulled out a 5-3 decision to win the state title and close his season with a 59-3 record.
Blatt had been upset at the regional tournament and finished second, but rebound to win the 132-pound title with a fall over Northern Guilford’s Heath Gonyer. Blatt finished his season 46-2.
“They were great all year,” Belk said. “We’re happy for them and all of their hard work, dedication and the time they put into the sport pays off. It’s one those where you sit there in amazement for everything they put into it and what they got out of it.
“Josh and Tripp were great, but we had so many guys do well.”
The Panthers also got a fourth-place finish from Cauble, who closed his season 49-11 at 106 pounds.
Wicker placed fourth at 120 pounds and closed the year 42-11 and Nathan Huntley placed fourth at 126 pounds, closing his season 51-13.
In all, the Panthers scored 107.5 points to beat runner-up Cape Fear, who had 96 points. For what it’s worth, St. Stephens placed fourth with 87 points, but either way the Panthers made their point loud and clear.
“We had a bad taste in our mouth from the dual tournament, so the boys went out there, wrestled valiantly and we came away with the individual team state title,” Belk said. “We lost to St. Stephens at the dual team. It was a tough loss and once the regionals and individual tournaments came, we weren’t going to be denied again.”
Belk said the success his program has seen particularly over the past few seasons has been by design.
The Panthers schedule tough opponents early and wrestle whoever they can with an eye toward peeking at the three big postseason meets.
“We seek out the best competition we can,” Belk said. “We go look for it because we train for February. It’s nice to win November, December and January, but those don’t matter. Our season cultivates with the tournaments in February, so we seek out the best and that’s where we’re different from most teams. We want to go and it they beat us early on we’ll just train harder.
The Panthers will close the season with another championship banner to hang and more prestige for a rising program quickly becoming one of the 3A’s best.
“It’s tremendous,” Belk said. “ It leaves you feeling like it’s a mission accomplishments and it’s a feeling of elation. I tip my hat and say, ‘Job well done.’ We don’t feel like we left anything on the table, and those boys reached what they worked for.
“And this definitely sets the tone for all of those that are yet to come. We like to think this is to honor all of those who came before us and this is a building block to the next generation of Piedmont wrestlers.”