BENSON — For Tony Jimenez, this weekend’s N.C. High School Athletic Association state wrestling championships are a chance to give something back to a man who has been there for him the past 16 years.
West Johnston coach David Prendergast, Tony’s stepfather and coach, hopes that Jimenez knows the life skills he has learned are more meaningful than any victory on the mat.
But as Jimenez and dozens of other area wrestlers begin their quest for individual state championships in Winston-Salem on Thursday, winning a title would be an ideal going away gift for Prendergast, who will step down as West’s head coach at season’s end.
“I’m planning on doing it for him because he’s done so much for me,” Jimenez said of his quest for a state championship. “And also for myself. I know how hard I’ve worked for it and how hard he works at it.”
Prendergast met Tony, and his older brother, Frankie, a few hours after he met their mother, Shawna, who was on a blind date with a roommate. David and Shawna were soon married.
Prendergast didn’t get to college until his mid-20s after earning his high school diploma at Gloucester (N.J.) Community College. He wrestled at Rutgers before taking a coaching position at Palyra High in New Jersey.
He later coached at Nottoway, Va., for three years before going to West Johnston.
The boys always have been around wrestling. Prendergast had a 17-by-30-foot mat room at home in Nottoway. The boys preferred to wrestle in the living room and the bouts helped Tony Jimenez develop determination and a mean streak.
“Tony’s always been a little angrier, a little meaner,” Prendergast said.
“Watching my brother develop, once he started getting good, I developed my love for it then,” Jimenez said of his brother, Frankie, who was seventh in the state championships during his senior season in 2012. “Then watching him make it to states made me stronger.”
Tony Jimenez battled attitude issues earlier in the season, especially when when he lost to the state’s No. 2 ranked 106-pound wrestler, Fayetteville Britt’s Bradley Wanovich. He let his disappointment boil over, his frustration visible by his body language. Jimenez had a conversation with former West Johnston coach Jim Herlinger, who helped start West’s highly successful wrestling program with Pendergast.
“Losing used to be a problem for me,” Tony Jimenez said. “I’m really tough on myself but I’ve learned to be much more honorable than I used to be.”
Two weeks later, Jimenez lost again, this time to the top-ranked wrestler at 106, Lake Norman’s Chase Kominek. He handled the disappointment much better and hasn’t lost since, a string of 21 consecutive victories.
“He’s just matured a lot and he understands that his career is almost over,” said teammate and friend, Brian Crutchfield.
It’s the bond with teammates like Crutchfield that has made Jimenez’s senior year so special. He’s quick to credit them for his success. “What makes me good is my team,” he said. “They’re like a family to me. With them, I can get through anything.”
His state championship hopes are real. He’s ranked in the top five in the state in the 4A 106-pound classification. And Jimenez has the credentials to back his hopes – a fourth-place finish at last year’s state finals and a fourth place finish in the Disney Duals nationally last summer.
“I have to have the right mindset going in there,” Jimenez said. “I know I can win this thing. It will be a challenge but if I keep the right attitude and wrestle well, it can happen.”
When his senior season is complete – state championship or not – Jimenez will join the Navy (he’s always wanted to travel the world) or possibly work in his uncle’s welding business. That’s the point where the lessons he learned through years of sitting in the stands while his dad coached and he watched match after match along with his brothers and sisters (David and Shawna’s daughters, Vienna, 14, Marissa, 13 and Lillian, 7) will mean the most.
He plans to win a state championship this weekend, but more than that he plans to react in an “honorable” way whatever happens. And that’s what makes his dad/coach happiest.
“He puts pressure on himself that he doesn’t need to,” Prendergast said. “He doesn’t have to win a state title to validate me. I just want him to go as far as he can for him, not for me.”
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