ROCKINGHAM — The Richmond wrestling team may not have as much athleticism or senior leadership as it did last year, but head coach Earl Nicholson is pleased with what he’s seen heading into the season.
From his son, sophomore Joey Nicholson, starting at the bottom of the lineup in the 106-pound weight class all the way up to sophomore Xavier Harrington learning his way around the mat as a heavyweight, Nicholson believes his team has what it takes to finish in the top three of the Sandhills Athletic Conference.
“We have a young team, but everybody has wrestled bef
“They’re learning and you’re seeing the progression.”
The Raiders lost a huge chunk of their production to graduation this past May, meaning they can no longer rely on guys like Housten Hayden, Jayshaun Jasper and Antoine Shaw to lead the way night in and night out.
Hayden, Jasper and Shaw — three of the nine seniors from the 2016-2017 season — all finished with more than 30 wins in their final year and and advanced to the North Carolina individual wrestling state championships.
“They were the backbone of our team,” Nicholson said. “The guys who are coming back from last year, who wrestled with them, are using the moves they learned from those guys — and it just builds from there.”
Two experienced returners who are looking to have big years for Richmond are senior Bradon Nifong, one of only four seniors, and junior Skylar Standridge. Now in a position of leadership, Nifong believes it’s his duty to “drive the team and make sure we’re staying focused all year.”
Standridge, though a junior, agrees and says he just hopes everyone puts forth their best efforts.
“I just want the team to work hard,” Nifong said. “We lost a lot of seniors last year, a lot of guys who led the team, so we’ve got to pick up the slack and reload.”
According to Nicholson, senior Tommy Shelton — who’s coming back from a foot injury — should be the Raiders’ “toughest wrestler” once he gets back to full health and Harrington has the potential to be “the best heavyweight I ever had” if he continues to learn at a fast pace.
Sophomores Evan Baxley and Austin Gallops, and junior Jaylynn Sturdivant, will also be looking to make huge improvements. Baxley’s attention to detail should pay dividends, Gallops earned his spot by beating out two others in his weight class and Sturdivant’s change in approach has Nicholson hoping the junior can win at least 20 matches this season.
Joey Nicholson and Steven Morales went to a couple of camps this past summer and have stepped up, Gabriel Zenteno is going to be a solid stay in the 132-pound class, and both Marcus Hester and Zachariah Hamilton are still trying to figure out who’s going to “be the man” at the 138 weight.
“I’m ready to see if they can put what we’ve been doing in practice on the mat, in live action. See what they’re learning,” Nicholson added.
Richmond opens up the season at home Saturday, as it’s set to host Anson, Asheboro, Douglas Byrd, East Montgomery, Lumberton, Scotland and Southwestern Randolph in an eight-team meet — which starts at 8 a.m.
“I’m just looking forward to see how the team works out. I want to see how these guys act and react to everything,” Nifong said. “Hopefully we’ll get some wins.”
Reach sports editor Leon Hargrove Jr. at 910-817-2673 and follow the sports section on Twitter @RCDailySports.