Even after a near-perfect ending to the regular season, there was a tinge of sadness when Clayton HIgh School’s five wrestling upperclassmen gathered at the center of the mat for a group photo to commemorate Senior Night.
“It’s kind of weird to think I won’t be able to come here every day after school,’’ said Clayton 145-pound standout Nick Brown. “When I look at this mat, I think about all the time I spent on it with (Comets’ coach Cory Daker) and how much he taught me.’’
Brown and his other senior teammates — Michael Lines, Christian Prescott, Colton Young and Trevor Loken — were wrestling novices when they arrived at tryouts as ninth-graders. As with any sport, it took plenty of patience, time and dedication for that group to develop.
“It’s been a long four years,’’ Daker said. “Back when those guys first started, we literally got crushed at every dual meet. We would be dead last at tournaments. But we just needed experience, and that takes awhile.’’
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Clayton’s hard work has paid off in back-to-back Greater Neuse River Conference dual team championships, the second of which was finished off Thursday at home as part of a four-team event that also featured West Johnston, East Wake and Knightdale.
After East Wake defeated Knightdale 43-30, Clayton wrapped up the festivities by almost shutting out West Johnston by a 60-6 margin to push the Comets’ undefeated league dual streak to two years and counting.
The Wildcats’ lone triumph came when Johnny Rose accepted a forfeit in the heavyweight class. Clayton’s seniors all picked up victories except for Young, who graduated in December and isn’t eligible for remaining competition — but remains a vocal leader of the team.
In the final match of the dual, Prescott edged West Johnston’s Austin Daily 6-3 in a tight 113-pound contest.
“It was a good way to end it,’’ Brown said. “We’ve worked together for four years and have become a family. We have trained, trained and trained. We really didn’t take a break, even in the summer.’’
While the dual regular season portion of Clayton’s schedule has concluded, the Comets still have plenty to work for in the coming month. The GNRC Championships, which feature an individual format, will be held Jan. 30 at Knightdale.
As the league title holder, Clayton has qualified for the 4A state dual playoffs, and the Comets also expect plenty of success at the Individual Regionals in February. Daker saw Brown and Loken get out of the regionals last season to advance to the state meet in Greensboro, but he is looking for an even larger Blue and White representation this time around.
While Clayton’s program is at an apex this season, several of the other GNRC schools are in a building mode, including West Johnston. The Wildcats have just one senior on their roster this season — defending conference champion Justin Lumpkin at 132. West Johnston coach Charles Blumell expects Lumpkin, Rose, Daily, Tunstall Jefferson (170) and Caleb Wright (160) to be potential factors at the upcoming league tournament.
“Considering how young and inexperienced we are, I think we are doing pretty well right now,’’ Blumell said. “We have had a pretty good season.’’
Rose is part of a talent-laden heavyweight division in the GNRC that also features East Wake’s Zack Willard and Knightdale’s Cameron Noble, who squared off against each other Thursday, with the 26-1 Willard picking up a 4-0 decision. Last Saturday, Willard registered a late pin over Rose to win the championship at the Jolly Roger Invitational at Corinth Holders.
East Wake coach Bernard White likes Willard’s chances at the conference, along with Randy Quinteros (195), Tyler Barabasz (152) and Brett Huggler (170).
Depending on the outcome of other dual matches, the Warriors will finish either second or third in the league dual standings. The No. 2 spot would assure a state playoff dual berth, while a third-place effort would mean East Wake would have to earn an at-large bid.
“We are just going to have to see how it ends up down the line,’’ White said. “We had a loss against Rolesville that put us at a disadvantage. The kids have performed well and I’m happy with the way things went today. Knightdale is a big rival for us — we came out and did what we had to do.’’
Knightdale, which picked up just one league dual conquest this season, will pin its postseason hopes on Noble and Charles Pumbu, the defending GNRC champion at 132.
“We have just two seniors and three kids overall who have ever wrestled before,’’ said Knights’ head coach Alex Von Hoene, who returned to Knightdale this year after a three-year hiatus. “We are young and rebuilding. I’m happy to invest in these kids.’’
That was the same philosophy Daker took when he welcomed an unproven group of ninth-graders into the program in the Fall of 2012. Four years later, Clayton is in the process of wrapping up one of the most dominant mat stretches in school history.