ST. PAULS — Purnell Swett wrestling coach Nicky Barnes has seen the problems of the program’s recent past.
Low turnouts at the wrestling room, open spots in the lineup, and limited interest from the student body.
“In recent years at Swett, wrestling hasn’t been a predominant sport, it’s just been something they tried to hold their best at,” Barnes said.
But this year’s Rams look to change the formula and Saturday’s Saturday’s second-place finish at Bulldog Duals tournament in St. Pauls, served as a bit of a reintroduction for the program. The Rams went 2-1, beating Southeastern Conference foe Richmond 42-30 and tying a state points record with an 84-0 win against South Johnston, taking every bout by pinfall.
The only blemish was a 66-18 loss to a dominant West Brunswick squad in the final.
“Usually at Purnell Swett, we’re always scrappy, we’re always fighting for it but we could never get to that next level,” Barnes said. “Today they showed that they’re done sitting in the back, that they’re done just scrapping for it, they’re going to take it.”
The new-look Rams return an experienced core of wrestlers that have high hopes of reaching state, including Steve Bullard at 113 pounds, Devin Oxendine at 132, Tristan Jacobs at 220 and heavyweight Wakayan Dial, but the difference this season is in sheer numbers.
Whereas last year’s team generally had 13 to 15 wrestlers, give or take a few due to injuries, the Rams are bringing in 35-40 kids per day to practice.
“Everybody looks at us and they’re surprised because in years past, we’ve barely had a full varsity lineup,” Barnes said. “This year is the first year we’ve had a complete varsity lineup, no missing spots, as well as a complete JV lineup, so that’s helped us out having in good practices and stuff.
“We’re having to have challenge matches every week because they’re fighting for the spots. They’re hungry.”
Barnes credited former coach Rueben Daniels for starting the transition. Barnes, a former wrestler at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke, started at Swett as one of Daniels’ assistants, which helped build a link between the two schools.
And as the program has gained steam, more interest has come from Swett’s student body.
“We’re getting kids wanting to come out and be part of something that they see moving forward,” “We’ve promoted how well our program is progressing and kids want to be a part of that.”
Saturday’s tournament had its upsides and downsides. Jacobs both finished the tournament undefeated, but the day’s final dual against West Brunswick had plenty of struggles.
Starting at 126-pounds, the Rams lost the first six matches by pinfall and only got two wins, pins by Austin Oxendine and Jacobs. In the remaining 12 matches, 10 were lost by pinfall, with only the heavyweight and 106-pound bouts decided by points.
Even then, Barnes has long-term optimism.
“What’s cool is that if you look at it, almost 50 percent of our lineup is underclassmen, so we might be coming out here and busting people at tournaments now, but check us out in 2 or 3 years and you’ll see these same guys out here, still getting better and better,” he said. “Second place where we’re at is the beginning stage, I can only imagine what we’re going to do in a couple of years.”
St. Pauls takes 4th place
St. Pauls was participating in its first tournament since the program was nearly cut in the offseason and finished in fourth place, going 1-2.
The Bulldogs spent the day wrestling higher classifications, beating Triton, a 3A team, 48-36 before losing 70-6 to West Brunswick, another 3A school, and 48-28 to 4A Richmond.
St. Pauls coach Matt Anglin believed it was a good challenge for his team, which has a large contingent of newcomers this year.
The team is wrestling independent of a league and Anglin hopes that facing tough teams early will prepare wrestlers for the individual regionals.
“It’s a disadvantage in the moment because you don’t have the depth, you don’t have the experience that’s kind of built in with having that numbers that always come back, but it’s an advantage because when when we do get to our regional, we’re going to be a step up,” Anglin said. “We’ve seen the toughest, we’ve been with the toughest.”
The highlights for the Bulldogs included a win by first-year wrestler Rafael Saavedra at 113 pounds and finished 1-1 in varsity action.
The Bulldogs also got key wins from 126-pound junior Zered Hurley, who moved to the area from Indiana and looks to be one of the Bulldogs’ top wrestlers.
“He’s bringing experience to a very green team,” Anglin said.
Anglin said the goal this season is to build on the success of last year’s team and increase the amount of state and regional qualifiers.