INDIAN TRAIL – Jack Wilton patiently waited his turn, but when opportunity knocked, the senior Sun Valley three-sport standout made sure to open the door.
For the past couple of football seasons, Wilton had been a productive role player behind Roy Artolozaga, a linebacker who led the Spartans football team in tackles during the 2017 season and helped Sun Valley to an 11-4 record and to the fourth round of the playoffs that year, both of which are school records.
Wilton noticed how Artolozaga carried himself on the field, but also in the classroom, where he shined as a student. Artolozaga also spent many hours volunteering and was a central figure of the Sun Valley student body.
“It meant a lot to be a big part of the defense this past season,” Wilton said. “I was behind (on the depth chart) Roy and I always wanted to be the big man on campus that everybody looks up to and that everyone depends on. When it was my time to shine, I took it by the neck and ran with it.”
The Spartans had lost four of their top five tacklers from the season before, but Wilton was spectacular on defense, making up for the losses by recording 124 tackles, five sacks and a pair of interceptions for the Spartans, who went 10-3.
It was the first time they had ever compiled back-to-back, double-digit victories in consecutive seasons and just the fourth Sun Valley team to ever win 10 or more games.
Wilton was the anchor of the defense, earning all-conference honors. With football season over, he thought about going out for the wrestling team, but he hadn’t wrestled since his freshman season when he went 14-17.
When he learned Sun Valley grad and 2014 state wrestling champion Billy Benfield took over the program, Wilton went for it.
At first, Wilton said he could remember being dead tired after matches because he wasn’t yet in wrestling shape. Once he got his body ready, he cruised to another standout performance.
Wilton went 21-2 during the regular season and finished 27-6.
In the conference championship, he was pinned in the semifinals but fought back to win the consolation semifinals and the third-place match.
At regionals, Wilton won his first two matches before falling in the semifinals. Like he had at conference, he got composed enough to win the consolation semifinal before suffering a pin in the third-place match.
“Wrestling wasn’t my favorite, honestly, but I stuck with it and turned out to be pretty decent at it,” he said.
After suffering a loss in the state championship, it was onto lacrosse for the three-sport star.
Wilton is a four-year starter on the lacrosse team, but the Spartans had found little success in their tough conference in his previous three seasons, although they made the playoffs for the first time in 2018.
But, like everything else Wilton had touched to this point in his senior year, this was going to be different.
“He’s one of those who works hard at everything that he does and everything he’s been involved in he’s made better,” said Sun Valley athletic director Chris Batchelor. “He’s left everything he’s been a part of better than he found it. He’s an outstanding young man and a great role model for some of the younger kids. He’s deserved everything that he’s gotten.”
Wilton was third in scoring behind Nicholas Phillips and Ryan Gunderson with 29 goals and also dished out 15 assists and corralled 65 ground balls.
With his help, the Spartans set a school record for wins in a season (they went 10-5) and won their first-ever playoff game with a 10-9 win over Southeast Guilford.
Fittingly, Wilton led the team with four goals in the playoff win.
More than just an athlete
Sun Valley Principal Michael Harvey saw an email one day come across his desk that made him think of Wilton.
The N.C. High School Athletic Association awarded 31 student-athletes from around the state the Heart of a Champion Award. The distinction recognizes students who participated in at least one sport and demonstrated outstanding citizenship and sportsmanship during their high school careers.
Wilton was the only Union or Mecklenburg County athlete to win this year’s award.
“Jack came to mind immediately for not only what he does on the field but for what he does at the school, as well,” Harvey said. “Aside from being a great athlete, he’s a good, good person. He’s a great human being, he knows how to treat others and he doesn’t let his success on or off the field give him a big head or make him think that he’s better than others.”
Harvey said he has a favorite photo of Wilton bent down helping a student in the transition to adulthood classes, which houses students with severe learning disabilities or Down syndrome and other things. In the photo, Wilton is helping a kid get to class on time by tying his shoe.
Wilton also lets Andrew, another student in the class, walk out of the tunnel with him on football home games.
“He takes care of those kids and plays with them religiously,” said Sun Valley football coach Tad Baucom. “Nobody twisted his arm. He just went out there and played with him. He has something you don’t teach. You either have that desire or you don’t. Since freshman year, he’s been that guy that very much pays attention to what’s going on and tries to learn all he can in every situation he gets into.”
Leaving a lasting impact
Wilton has decided to go to N.C. State as a student, although he plans on playing club lacrosse.
He had a couple of scholarships offers for football, including one from Lafayette College, but he ended up leaning toward staying closer to home.
He’s going to study business, although Wilton said he doesn’t know what he wants to do with it just yet.
But, to anyone who has come in contact with him, Wilton is going to succeed in whatever avenue he chooses to pursue.
“I wish I had a lot more like him,” Baucom said. “He waited his turn, but when he got his chance he did a great job not just as a player but as a leader. I’m glad he’s leaving for him, but we’re going to miss him. He’s really a super kid.”
Wilton said his impact off the field is what he hopes people remember as much as his all-conference runs on the football and lacrosse fields and his triumphant return to wrestling.
“No competition is like high school football, so I’m going to miss that,” he said. “I’m going to miss my team, I’m going to miss my coaches, the school and all of it.”
While he’ll be gone from school, Harvey said he’ll remember Wilton’s contributions for years to come.
“I’ve been in high school sports for a long time,” Harvey said. “I may not remember how many wins or losses this team had, but I’m going to remember the way Jack treated the kids at our school. I want to have more Jack’s year in and year out. He’s got a great sense of humor and there’s no doubt he’s going to be successful with his character traits.”