While most associate the holiday season as a period of relaxation, it has always been a weeding-out period for the Scotland varsity wrestling program.
According to head coach Joel McCanna, the Fighting Scots’ wrestling roster was 25 strong heading into the 2011 winter break. And when the team emerged for the start of the 2012 calendar year, that roster had whittled to just 10 active wrestlers.
“Right around Christmas time our teams are usually cut down by half, and every year it’s like that,” McCanna said. “Kids get a two week break and decide not to stick it out for the long haul. Wrestling is a tough sport, and it’s even tougher when you realize that you can’t take any time off if you want to be successful.”
And in terms of this year’s winter gut check for the Scots, perhaps no tournament embodied the challenges of 2012’s final days more than the ‘King of the Mat’ competition which took place at North Davidson High School the weekend of Dec. 28.
The seven Scotland wrestlers who made the trip found themselves beginning their Friday morning at 5 a.m. and finishing the day at 10:30 p.m. From there, the team made it back to North Davidson at 7 a.m. on Dec. 29 for another day that lasted well into the night-time hours.
But for those Scotland grapplers who gritted out the grueling schedule, their reward was an 11th-place finish out of 40 teams that saw North Carolina’s top programs as well as teams from New York and Pennsylvania make the journey as well.
Out of those seven Scots, three managed to place at the tournament.
Scotland seniors Nick Kee and Adrian Soto-Perez tore through the top-tier competition placed before them to earn first place honors in the 160 (Soto-Perez) and 170 (Kee)-pound weight classes, each going a perfect 5-0 in the process.
With another impressive tournament performance under their belts, Kee and Soto-Perez are now 32-0 on the year and have established themselves as arguably the top-two overall wrestlers in North Carolina.
While Kee and Soto-Perez cruised through their tournament brackets with relative ease, another Scotland wrestler continued to build his winter break momentum which began a week prior. After finishing fifth overall at the WRAL tournament held in Raleigh, 132-pound Scotland junior Afiz Lateef rose to the occasion yet again at the King of the Mat, placing third and going 7-1 to move to a 30-5 overall record thus far this season.
“The holidays are hard times for Scotland wrestling, and only the most dedicated are the ones who show up, and Afiz is a perfect example,” said Scotland coach Nicky Kee. “WRAL and King of the Mat are two huge tournaments, and if you can place at those you have a good chance of placing at the state level. Afiz did exactly that, and it’s because he works hard at practice and shows up every single day for this team.”
“I’m on the road I’m supposed to be on, and my performance at these past two tournaments proves that,” Lateef said. Lateef’s only loss came in the second round of the tournament, and from there the Scotland junior fired off six consecutive wins, including a five-point decision victory in the consolation championship round over the opponent who gave him his only loss.
“The tournaments showed me where I’m supposed to be at and how much I’ve improved overall, and now I have to take these experiences with me for the rest of the season. I don’t mind being the underdog,” he said.
Aside from Scotland, conference foe and perennial powerhouse Pinecrest also attended the tournament and earned second-place honors overall as a team.
And though the season won’t officially hit full stride until next week, it’s already become clear that the battle for Southeastern Conference supremacy will once again be a two-horse race between the Scots and Patriots.
If Scotland’s performance in the winter tournaments are any indication, than the Scots will likely have several competing at the state level when it’s all said and done says McCanna.
“These last two tournaments showed us what we can expect to see at the region and state level this season,” McCanna said. “For wrestlers like Nick, Adrian and Afiz, the past couple of weeks shows that they should be on a podium at the end of the season. And for our other wrestlers, it was also a good indication that they’ll need to step it up if they want to join those guys.”
The Fighting Scots will travel to Topsail High School (out of Hampstead, N.C.) this weekend for the ‘Battle at the Beach’ tournament before hosting Purnell Swett at home Jan. 9. That conference matchup will start at 6 p.m.