If you wandered on the South Mecklenburg High campus in search of the Sabres’ wrestling room, you’d either have to be looking for it or get very lucky to find it tucked away in the far reaches of the sprawling campus.
But there, in an extreme corner of the school nestled between the track and the football team’s practice field, sits an odd-shaped white building that looks more like a greenhouse than the home of the reigning Southwestern 4A wrestling champions.
But the building is just fine for the Sabres. In fact, said first-year coach Jeffrey Keiser, other than being a few hundred yards from the weight room, it serves them quite nicely.
“At first I was like ‘Wait, really? This is our wrestling room?,’” Keiser said half-jokingly. “But actually it serves us well. It’s ours, we have everything that we need and we really like it.”
All jokes about the building aside, what’s going on inside is the story. With nearly everyone returning, last season’s conference championship seems to be just the beginning for this team – especially with individual conference champions Klevar Mason and Joseph Coss leading the way.
“(Last year) was awesome,” said Coss, a senior who went 42-5 as a 145-pounder last season. “It was the first time in 26 years that we’d won (a conference title). Klevar was a champion, I was a champion and we have a senior (Brett Barber) who was a champion.
“It was awesome to share that with the team. Winning an individual championship was great, but the team championship was awesome.”
Coss is hopeful he and Mason can help the Sabres repeat as conference champions in the newly formed So. Meck 8, and the duo would like to have a few more guys standing on the podium when the individual champions are called.
And Keiser, who is in his first season after spending the previous 12 leading Charlotte Country Day, thinks he has the talent to make that happen.
Mason was 37-9 last year at 126 pounds. He will be joined by Blake Barber, a junior who posed a 36-11 record at 120 pounds; Louis Esposito, a 182-pound senior who was 29-17; Jacob Norby, a 152-pound junior who accumulated a 17-14 record; Seth Mann, a sophomore heavyweight who is sure to improve upon his 12-17 record; and Collin Stewart, the Sabres lone state qualifier who was fourth in the conference with 44 wins as a then 113-pound sophomore.
“Those guys are pretty good,” Keiser said. “Those guys are going to carry the wins and the majority of the success we have is going to fall on them. Those core guys are going to be the ones that we count on.
“I think we’re pretty solid. It may not happen right away, but my goal is, come January, we have a set lineup with everything filled and be really hitting our stride.”
Coss and Martin want to make sure they’re doing all they can to get their teammates up to speed and all on the same page so they’ll be ready to defend their title once conference play begins.
“We’re focusing more as a team and trying to build off what we did last year,” Mason said. “We’re taking that success and turning it into something we can all share by making it less individualized.
“We got a few of the core members of the team together and made a plan to keep the team structured and organized this off-season. Whenever we have a bad day, we want to be there for each other and push each other up.”
Keiser said all of his seniors have made a huge impact, easing his transition to the Sabres. The veteran coach said that, while at Country Day, he noticed his teams didn’t always stack up against public school teams as they often were physically smaller than those opponents. So Keiser instituted an in-season weightlifting program that’s different for the Sabres, but something they’re buying into wholeheartedly.
He added that maybe nobody has bought into the coaching philosophy changes more than Coss.
“We’re doing things differently, but these kids have bought in,” Keiser said. “I wasn’t really sure if what we were doing was going to translate and be well-received, but I have nothing but positives to say.
“From Day 1, Joseph has bought in. He’s the engine driving this team. He’s the vocal leader, he’s the one the other kids watch. He’s bought in, he likes what we’re doing.”
Coss seconded Keiser thoughts.
“He’s got us in the weight room a lot and it keeps us going,” Coss said. “Everyday we’re going here and there and doing something new. He’s keeping it exciting for us and it’s making us happy. I think our goal is to just keep improving every day, get 1 percent better each and every day.”
And with the two senior conference champions leading the way, the Sabres have done just that – an increasing improvement Keiser has had a front row seat to witness.
“Based on what I’ve seen, I think these kids’ goal is to win conference,” Keiser said. “They were champions last year, they have the majority of kids back. Last year, Collin was the only state qualifier, so I think we’re trying to push four or five guys to state and I think that’s legit.
“Collin can get back, Coss has a chance, Mason and Barber have chances and then who knows? Those guys are definitely looking at getting to Greensboro and maybe someone will get hot and get there, too.”
Mason said they’re working as a team toward that goal and, however this season plays out, they’ll remain a unified and cohesive unit.
“We have a great connection with the returning wrestlers, hopefully the new people can see that,” he said. “It’s not just a place where you come to wrestle, it’s a place where you can confide in people and have a teammate on and off the mat. That’s important when you’re out there wrestling. You need that motivation from somebody out there.
“I’ve wrestled here for the past four years and I’ve seen all the teams we’ve had, but I would definitely say that this team here, we have what it takes to go far. We have the heart and the talent to do it.”
Coss said that he and Mason’s success last season is something they can see rubbing off on everyone on the team.
“Yeah, hopefully that enthusiasm will trickle down,” Coss said. “You can’t make people work hard but you can show them how to, so that’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to lead by example.”