To find the last Scotland freshman class to make as big an impact as the 2012-13 wrestling Scots have thus far, 20-year coach Joel McCanna has to look back to 1996.
That season, many of the 21 ninth-graders that suited up for the varsity Fighting Scots actually earned starting nods over their upperclassmen teammates en route to Scotland earning a Cape Fear regional championship. Once the dust finally settled, the 1996 Scots had finished fifth in the state overall.
Flash forward to the 2012-13 season: After a 44-24 loss to Jack Britt Nov. 20, the Scots have been on an absolute tear, going 16-3 since that day.
And it’s due large in part to the unexpected emergence of Scotland’s youngest wrestlers.
“All of our young guys have done a tremendous job this year, and it’s amazing to have ninth graders doing as well as they are,” McCanna said. “In terms of pushing our upperclassmen and making us a better team as a whole, this group of guys ranks right up there with the best I’ve had.”
Scotland’s top wrestlers Nick Kee and Adrian Soto-Perez (both seniors) have reached the point in their careers where they are looked to as elder-statesmen. Teammates actively seek out their advice and knowledge, including freshman 120-pounder Zitemus Robinson who looks to them as practice opponents to further hone his craft.
“Nick and Adrian are my main influences,” said Henderson, who has vaulted to a 14-6 record thus far in the early season. Henderson is also the ninth-ranked 120 pound wrestler in the state. “I try to work with the older guys when I do drills, because I like to challenge myself at all times. I feel like a sophomore or junior in terms of where I’m at as a wrestler.”
“He’s always asking me questions about what he did right, wrong and how he can improve,” Soto-Perez said. Both Kee and Soto-Perez have started the season with undefeated 20-0 marks, as each prepares to further add to their championship pedigree. “He’s not satisfied with being a good freshman, he wants to be as good as us. It makes us feel good because last year Nick and I had our own agenda, but now these guys don’t hesitate to ask us anything and we all learn from each other.”
And not just the freshman have seen their game drastically improve since the start of the season. Wrestling up 11 pounds to take on Jack Britt’s Petelo Mikaele, Scotland 129-pound junior Jessi Kee suffered a 11-3 major decision loss to give the all-conference wrestler a disappointing start to her year.
“I could’ve done a lot better, and I didn’t realize how out of shape I was until that first match,” Kee said. “To get better, it always starts in the wrestling room, and since then I’ve dedicated myself to running a lot more and I feel like I’ve come a long way.”
The younger of the two Kee siblings, Jessi has gone on to earn a 14-3 record since her loss during the meet with the Buccaneers, who are the number two-ranked team in North Carolina.
On Monday evening, the Fighting Scots traveled to Marlboro County and won their meet with the Bulldogs 57-21. Best exemplifying the youth movement that currently has Scotland surging, the Scots’ first three matches of the night were wrestled by freshmen, who all pinned their opponents.
Filling in for fellow freshman Joey Dinkins who is currently battling a cold, Jacob Young wrestled in the 106-pound weight class and earned a pin in the second period to move to 7-2 on the year.
Next up was 113-pounder Josiah Williams, who earned a pin at the 33-second mark in the first period and was followed by Henderson’s match-ending pin with 1:19 left in the second period.
Scotland junior Afiz Lateef also earned a victory by securing a decisive takedown with less than 30 seconds left in the third period to edge his opponent 7-6. Jessi and Nick Kee and Soto-Perez were dominant as well, each earning pins of their own.
And, after making his wrestling debut at the Parkland duals held this past weekend, freshman Mazami Stubbs (who alternates between 195 and 220 pounds) has exploded on the scene with a 6-0 record, with four of those six victories coming by way of pinfall. Stubbs earned a forfeit decision Monday night.
All in all, not bad for a team that had several wrestlers with little to no experience heading into the 2012-13 season.
“In that first match against Jack Britt, the new guys were like a deer in headlights,” said Scotland coach Nicky Kee. “But they’ve turned it all around for us by working hard and taking the initiative to be better athletes.”
“That first time you’re ever on the mat, it’s a feeling you can’t explain,” Nick Kee said. “You have butterflies in your stomach and all kinds of thoughts running in your head, so I know what they were going through. But it feels good to see the younger wrestlers looking to continue the wrestling tradition here and do better than what’s expected of them, because that’s how champions are made.”