By Lee Noles
MONROE – The last seven years have seen the Piedmont High wrestling program corral seven conference titles, four regional crowns and three state championships.
The reasons for success are obvious to Piedmont coach Jamie Belk. One is the hard-working wrestlers who come into the program, but Belk talks just as much about the community and school support his team receives. He also expounds on the experienced coaching staff who help him at practices and meets.
Then he hits upon an idea that brings all those reasons together.
Belk describes the lasting effect the middle and elementary school programs he helped start with former coaches Todd Stokes and Jim Swayney in 2008 as a catalyst behind the string of titles.
The coaches initiated the program to introduce younger athletes to wrestling while gaining match experience. The recent results are hard to argue against, as back-to-back state championships in 2017 and 2018 were chalked full of wrestlers who have been there since elementary school.
Belk relates the idea of a youth program more to the building blocks of a pyramid than a feeder system. The base forms in elementary school, where students learn the terminology and technique of the sport. The practices in the elementary school level are similar to a tutorial as students become aware of stances and takedowns.
Meet experience is added almost block by block in middle school, where the wrestlers participate in as many as 40 matches at AAU tournaments throughout North Carolina. Belk said the wrestlers come into the varsity program with almost 120 matches already under their belt.
“All our coaches do a good job of preaching expectations and how to do certain things,” Belk said. “And
importantly how to perform when it is time to perform.”
Tripp Collins began wrestling in the youth program in third grade. He said it was in middle school when he started to learn how to handle situations on the mat. Collins remembers scenarios the coaching staff developed, like handling takedowns, or getting out of a pin. The years in the middle and elementary school program are paying off for Collins as the sophomore is the top ranked wrestler in the 113-pound division in the state 3A classification by rankwrestler.com. He is also 51-3 this season as of Jan. 24.
“There are times when I go out and wrestle, I have five or six years more experience than my opponents,” Collins said. “I think it really does help. Wrestling is a mindset, and when you come out knowing you have a couple of more years of experience than other guys, it helps with your confidence, and wrestling has a lot to do with confidence.”
Bailey Wicker is another of Piedmont’s wrestlers who have benefited from the youth program. Wicker started in fifth grade, won two AAU state championships while wrestling in middle school and then proceeded to win two more state titles after joining the varsity program as a freshman. Last year as a sophomore, he was one of the Panthers most dynamic grapplers, winning conference and regional championships before finishing as the state runner-up in the 106-pound weight class. He is 32-9 this season and ranked fourth in the state.
“It’s a family thing here,” Wicker said. “Knowing each other through elementary and middle school helps a lot. And it’s great to win together.”
Nate Huntley is one of the newer guys of the program despite wrestling for the Panthers for the last four years. Huntley transferred to Piedmont as a freshman, but noticed right away the strong camaraderie. He is 45-10 this year and ranked fourth in the 126-pound weight class.
“One big family,” Huntley said. “That is how we describe it. When I came here as a freshman, I didn’t know anyone, and then through wrestling I was able to make a lot of new friends.”
Belk said scheduling opponents sometimes proves difficult because of an unwillingness from some teams to go against a program so well established as his own. He’s turned the scheduling setback into a positive by securing matches against some of North Carolina’s top programs. Piedmont has wins over former state champions West Forsyth and Jack Britt among their host of victories. West Forsyth won state titles in 2016 and 2017. Jack Britt’s came in 2015.
The competition isn’t limited to other teams, as Belk has wrestlers with varied techniques and sizes go against each other in practice. At a particular workout, Wicker’s expertise on the mat was set up against Ross’ stand-up style.
“They can help them grow, plus you have different sizes and shapes,” Belk said. “And ultimately it helps everyone out.”
The focus now for the program is a third straight state title. According to records kept by the North Carolina High School Athletic Association, only seven schools have won three or more consecutive state championships since the dual-team format began in 1990. Piedmont would like nothing more than to add an eighth to the list.
“That is what we are driven toward,” said team captain senior James Price, who is 31-1 and ranked third this season in the 195-pound weight class. “We have all these names on the wall and we want to continue what they have done. Also, more recently with three state championships, we want to add another.”