HILLSBOROUGH — Bobby Shriner's Orange High School wrestling team won its second consecutive state title last weekend, capping off an undefeated season and taking its fourth 3A dual team championship in the past five years.
His boys dominated the mat despite a stomach bug that had sickened many of them; their commanding lead allowed them to forfeit the last few weight classes. The tournament's Most Valuable Wrestler rallied the team with a dramatic, come-from-behind pin after losing his first two matches.
But perhaps the most powerful moment came after the mats were cleared - when dozens of the athletes Shriner has coached over more than two decades came down from the stands, flooding the floor of the Panthers' home gym.
"The trophies, people will forget about as the years go by," says Shriner, a 50-year-old New Jersey native. "But the relationships you build will last for a lifetime."
Shriner has led Orange's wrestling team for 23 years, building one of the state's strongest programs and sending wrestlers on to top colleges and their own coaching careers.
Shriner doesn't see his job as a pursuit of glory, but more as a way to instill the values of humility, hard work and perseverance in his student athletes - particularly those whose troubled home lives lack a strong foundation.
Shriner has gone as far as taking students into his home to keep them on the right track, and he will frequently visit the homes of players who miss school or practice. Among the students he has helped is his assistant coach, Spenser Poteat, who lived with Shriner's family during high school while Poteat's mother dealt with drug addiction.
"The wrestling team here is just like a family," Poteat says. "There's no telling where I'd be, where a lot of kids would be, if it weren't for him."
Hooked on coaching
Squat and powerfully built with big ears and an impish grin, Shriner was drawn to North Carolina by a wrestling scholarship to UNC-Chapel Hill. There, he met his wife, who was in law school at the time. The couple have lived in Orange County ever since.
In high school, he was on the football and baseball teams in addition to the wrestling team - playing as a defensive back and catcher, just as his father and brothers did. But when it came time for college, he accepted a full wrestling scholarship over smaller awards in other sports.
He majored in physical education, planning to be a high school coach. But he took a different path out of college, working for three years developing and renting commercial properties.
But when he tried coaching as a volunteer at Chapel Hill High School, he was instantly hooked, and decided to return to his original career goal.
It was hard for him to leave his job. His boss and mentor was gravely ill and hoped Shriner would help his sons run the business when he died; his boss passed about a year after Shriner started teaching.
Shriner taught for a few years at an elementary school before taking a job as assistant coach, then coach, at Orange. He still clearly relishes the job. He nicknames many of his wrestlers and coaches, and invites them to his house for an annual picnic.
At a recent practice gearing up for the individual championship this weekend, about a dozen wrestlers and five coaches rolled around casually working through moves in the yellow circles on black mats in a room in the school's gym.
Shriner would occasionally ask a resting student to get back to work. After practice, he knelt on one knee and laid out plans - light practice for another day, allowing everyone to recover from the virus that struck his team. Then they would have to practice twice as hard later in the week.
"We need every single one of you out there this weekend," he told the players, his voice rising just slightly.
He admits, though, that he's usually more prone to yelling at practices, which he sees as the best way to get young men geared up for competition. And he's quick to take a player aside, whether the wrestler is failing to put in a full effort or acting a bit too proud.
Shriner says the most important trait he hopes to instill in his athletes is humility. A simple warning of "L.P."reminds his wrestlers to maintain a "low profile."
He has led the school'sFellowship of ChristianAthletes club for 23 years, and peppers his coaching with maxims gleaned from Bible verses. One favorite is that "iron sharpens iron," meaning the whole team gets better when each member tries his hardest.
He hopes these ideals will stick with students well after they are done wrestling.
"Coaching is a greatplatform to speak to kids' lives," Shriner says.
"We try to build gentlemen and fathers,people who are going to contribute to our society."
Wrestling is rarely the most popular sport at a high school; those clingy, one-piece outfits aren't for everyone, nor are the intense physical demands.
Yet the Orange team is going strong with about 50 wrestlers, many of whom competed at the middle school level, where yet another of Shriner's former students is the coach.
Shriner says his teams took second place several times in the 1990s and suffered through some heartbreakingly close losses. They took their first state championship under his tenure in 2005, and then won the title in 2008, 2009 and 2011 before winning again this year.
The team won this year's title in Shriner's preferred way - with every wrestler contributing, and some performing well above expectations. There are no stars on his team; in fact, he has turned away talented wrestlers who don't keep up good grades and behavior.
"He sets the bar high, on and off the mat," says Poteat, the assistant coach.
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