ROCKINGHAM — What started out as a season with a lot of potential quickly turned into a rebuilding year for the Richmond wrestling team, which wrapped things up at the NCHSAA 4A Midwest Regionals in Winston-Salem last week.
Head coach Earl Nicholson believed early on that his team’s youth, mixed with a few experienced wrestlers, could help the Raiders reload and finish in one of the top-three spots in the final conference standings. He had a lineup full of athletes who had all wrestled before and were showing signs of progression heading into the 2017-18 season.
Sometime around the holiday break, however, his roster experienced some major changes, as a number of “winning wrestlers” were removed from the team for various reasons — forcing a handful of inexperienced underclassmen to step up.
Among those dismissed were two of the team’s best wrestlers in Brandon Nifong and Tommy Shelton, the only two seniors in the starting lineup. Nifong was undefeated (17-0) at the time and Shelton had been dubbed the team’s “toughest wreslter.”
“It hurt us because of the points we were missing out on. A lof of those guys were winning wrestlers who helped us get a lot of points, and of course points lead to wins,” Nicholson said. “But it helped us out because we started having smoother practices … In the long run it’s going to be a big plus because we really got a lot accomplished in that last month.”
With an even younger team on the mat, Richmond welcomed the lead-by-example efforts of sophomores Steven Morales and Joey Nicholson in the second half of the season. They combined for more than half of the team’s points at the E.B. Memorial Clash at Mallard Creek and then dominated their respective weight classes at the Eagle Duals Tournament.
Another sophomore who came on strong for the Raiders was Austin Gallops at 152 pounds. His comeback victory against Lumberton last month, a win by pinfall in the second period after trailing 10-2, compelled Nicholson to say “he’s going to be one of greats before he leaves here.”
Juniors Skylar Standridge — who was within 30 seconds of qualifying for the individual state championships — and Zachariah Hamilton were also reliable members of the starting lineup. Standridge’s run in the regionals last week was one of the better performances Nicholson said he saw all season. Hamilton finished with a team-high in points at both the conference tournament and the regional competition.
“Near the end of the season, we just had a small group of guys in the room and everybody was focused. When I went over a new move, I immediately started to see it in the matches,” Nicholson said. “Nobody was challenging whether the move worked or not. Everybody bought into it and we started getting results.
“As for the sophomores and juniors that did well this season, I already told them I’m expecting at least 30 wins out of all of them (next year),” he added. “That would be a successful season, just by the numbers.”
Now in the offseason, Nicholson is turning his focus to making sure he keeps the wrestlers who are currently on the team and raises enough money to get them to camp this summer. He also hopes to get a few football players from the Ninth-Grade Academy to join the program, which would help the Raiders avoid the forfeits that haunted them late in the season.
“We have some spots — around the 170, 182, 195 area — where we didn’t have wrestlers, so we gotta make sure we fill those gaps. And I prefer to fill those with football players,” he said. “I’m going to do some big recruiting this year.”
Reach sports editor Leon Hargrove Jr. by phone at 910-817-2673 or by email at [email protected] For stories, scores and updates, follow the Daily Journal’s sports section on Twitter @RCDailySports.