A heavyweight with a heavy weight on his shoulders – that was the story of Zack Willard’s clutch performance Tuesday for the East Wake Warriors.
With the outcome of his team’s contest with West Johnston in question, Willard came up with a pinfall in the closing match as part of a Greater Neuse River Conference wrestling quad that also featured Garner and Southeast Raleigh at the East Wake gymnasium.
The Warriors, looking to close out a two-opponent sweep, relied on Willard while holding a slim two-point cushion over the Wildcats. Taking on summer training partner Thad Wilkerson, Willard earned a pin with 52 ticks remaining in the second period to finish off East Wake’s 44-36 triumph.
“A situation like that, I try not to let if affect me,” said Willard, a senior who qualified for the states last season and has dropped just one match to date this season. “I feel like I don’t wrestle as well when I think about it. I try to keep a clean head.”
When the referee slapped the mat to signify Willard’s pin, East Wake improved to 3-1 in the GNRC after two quad events. West Johnston is also 3-1 in league action.
“Our guys are putting things together,” said Warriors first-year coach Bernard White. “We are doing what is needed in order to be successful. We still have plenty to work on, but our guys are showing a lot of heart right now.”
That intangible was evident Tuesday as East Wake picked up two tight team triumphs, beginning with a 40-39 close call over Garner.
A loss turned out to be a victory for the Warriors as they clinched the first conquest when 195-pounder Randy Quinteros was defeated by decision in the next-to-last match. Because of Quinteros’ pinfall avoidance, the Trojans’ final pin at 220 was inconsequential and only brought Garner within one point.
East Wake then met West Johnston, which opened with a 41-24 win over a Southeast Raleigh club that forfeited matches in six weight classes due to a low roster total.
The Wildcats rolled to an early 30-9 cushion over the Warriors and appeared headed for a perfect night, only to be foiled by East Wake’s late rally.
“I don’t even look at the team score,” White said. “If you keep wrestling and do what you are supposed to, that usually shows up in the end.”
Thanks to two pins and a pair of forfeits, East Wake drew back to within 36-33 following a Quinteros pinfall at 195. Caleb Brown then gave the Warriors their first lead of the match with a major decision at 220.
But East Wake’s victory wasn’t secure until Willard, already ahead 2-0, got Wilkerson on his back for the second-period pin to wrap up the emotional team win.
“I’ve worked out a lot with (Wilkerson), especially during the summer,” Willard said. “You could say we have a little rivalry going.”
Despite the Warriors’ furious closing flurry, West Johnston coach Charles Blumell was upbeat about his club’s effective start to the GNRC schedule.
“We are wrestling really well,” Blumell said. “I only have one senior on the team to go with four juniors and a lot of freshmen and sophomores. It’s just a matter of filling in some spots where we don’t have people right now (in the lineup).”
Following its tough setback against East Wake, Garner rebounded with a 60-15 team triumph over Southeast Raleigh. Trojans Cushan Jones (113) and Matthew Hicks (145) both posted 2-0 records as part of the quad.
Southeast’s lone double winner was 220-pounder Jerry Harper, a returning regional qualifier from the 2014-15 campaign. Fredrick Salley, a 120-pounder, registered his first career varsity victory for the Bulldogs against Garner.