Charlotte Latin wrestling coach Richard Fletcher affectionately refers to the last two to three weeks of any season as “The Grind,” a time when his Hawks are going to work harder, run longer and drill more profusely than they have all season to ensure that they’re physically and mentally prepared to peak.
The technique paid off last season as the Hawks, despite having just one senior on their roster, won the school’s 15th N.C. Independent Schools Athletic Schools 3A wrestling championship.
Last season’s state title, Fletcher now can admit, arrived a year before he figured his Hawks had a shot to add to their trophy case. But because of some timely wins and the practice that’s come to be known as The Grind, they were able to perform their best late in the season, when it mattered the most.
And this season is shaping up to be even better, as the deep and battle-tested Hawks are preparing for another championship run. They’ve compiled a 22-3 overall record and are heavily favored to repeat as state champions, although they know again ascending to the top will take hard work.
“Every year at this point you hit a hump,” said 138-pound senior Charlie Horvath, who has a record of 23-9 on the season and is one of 12 Hawks with at least 17 wins.
“Getting over that hump is one of the hardest parts of the season,” Horvath continued. “We have three weeks left and have to stay focused.”
Fletcher said The Grind was inspired, in part, by a quote he read from American world and Olympic freestyle wrestling champion Jordan Burroughs, who said, “Success only comes before work in the dictionary.”
That mantra holds true for Fletcher, his coaching staff and his talented team.
Fletcher said he and assistant coach David Paige have helped the Hawks embrace The Grind and hope it translates into another great ending for what essentially is the same team that took home the state title last year.
“They know that to get where they want to be, they have to love work,” Fletcher said. “If they know the hard work they put in (practice) will pay off (in matches), then they will love to work hard.”
And with the memory of last season’s championship run entrenched in their minds, the Hawks have already witnessed firsthand that Fletcher’s philosophies pay off, so they’re more than willing to buy into what the Latin coaching staff is preaching to them.
“We always put in the extra sprints, the extra work and the extra practice time,” said 220-pound senior Sam Wilson, who has a 28-2 record and is one of two Hawks ranked No.1 in his weight class by retrorankings.com.
“Last year was a bit of a surprise that (winning the state title) actually happened, but we worked toward it the entire season, so it wasn’t as surprising to us,” Wilson said.
And with an eye toward seeing this season to end with similar results, the Hawks are following the same path they went down a year ago.
Individually, they’ve already begun to climb to the top of the state rankings, as they have wrestlers listed in 11 of retrorankings.com’s 14 specified weight classes.
“It’s exciting,” Wilson said. “We’re going out in every match, and we’re expecting to win it. We know we have the big target on our back, but only losing one senior last year we feel good. We just have to keep working hard in practice and step up to the talent that we have out here.”
And there’s lots of talent on this roster.
Nick Boyd, a 152-pound junior, leads the Hawks with a 33-7 record but is joined by a host of others who have posted impressive seasons, including sophomore Toby Okwara, who is the other top-ranked Charlotte Latin wrestler and has achieved a 27-8 individual record in the 285-pound division.
Rounding out the Hawks’ arsenal are fellow sophomores Billy McClelland (25-5, 120 pounds), Ken Koch (22-12, 113 pounds) and Bentley Dalton (18-11, 132 pounds); junior Zachary Carter (19-12, 195 pounds); seniors Matt Bredder (19-8, 160 pounds), Alex Julian (18-8, 170 pounds) and Matt Borin (17-11, 145 pounds); and freshman Foard Nauman (19-10, 106 pounds).
With all the individual talent, Fletcher is pleased with the way his team has progressed. The coach said this squad, with its balance and senior leadership, has been one of his favorite during his 23-year tenure leading the program.
“There have really been no holes for us, which is pretty hard to do with a wrestling team,” Fletcher said. “We feel like we put a pretty tough kid in just about every weight class, and that’s been a big key for us.
“Honestly, this is one of the years that I’m just thrilled with.”
And Fletcher’s rosy outlook might only get better as the season winds down to its final weeks. The Hawks have yet to lose a dual meet to a private school team, and their three losses have come to Union County public school powers Sun Valley (by three points), Piedmont (by eight) and Parkland. Those three teams sport a combined record of 94-10.
And perhaps more important, all three of the aforementioned losses came in November. Since then, the Hawks have posted 20 consecutive dual-team victories, including wins over every team in the Charlotte Independent Schools Athletic Association, last season’s state runner-up SouthLake Christian and Class 3A public-school power Charlotte Catholic.
“At this point in the season, we’ve beaten a lot of really good competition,” Okwara said. “But we know teams can come up in the state tournament, so we can’t get lazy. We know we have to keep working because other teams will be coming for us, and they’ll show up at states.”
But with talent in seemingly every weight class and the Hawks in full Grind mode, the Hawks are hoping the upcoming conference (Feb. 7) and state tournaments (Feb. 15) are a proving ground to duplicate their surprising run from last season.
“We have to stay focused,” McClelland said. “Last year, we were so successful because we were so focused on the state tournament. We were so locked in, and we know we have to do it again this year.”
And from the looks of a recent Hawks practice – when Fletcher set back and let his senior captains Wilson, Horvath, Borin and Bredder run the team through drills and stretches – everyone seems to have bought into The Grind.
“This is where we always step up,” Wilson said. “In drills, sprints and practice tempo. For the next two to three weeks we’re going to work hard and come out in the best shape we’ve been in all season.
“Coach Fletcher and Coach Paige are going to make sure that happens, and so will we.”