LAURINBURG — Months after becoming St. Andrews University’s first two-time wrestling All-American, Denzel Vaughan returned to the school Tuesday to assist with coach Joe Baranik’s summer wrestling camp.
Vaughan, who led the Knights with 24 wins and 12 pinfall victories this season, sported some new jewelry on his right ring finger. The 285-pound heavyweight received a diamond-encrusted ring from an anonymous source this week as recognition for his success on the mat.
“I was just eating dinner and coach (Baranik) stopped to talk and he presented me with the ring,” Vaughan said. “I was shocked, but I was happy and excited for it.”
Although the ring was an unexpected gift, it was one that Vaughan deeply appreciates as he reflects on his stellar St. Andrews wrestling career. He finished 24-6 overall last season, and qualified for the NAIA Nationals in Kansas after posting a 5-1 record at the Eastern Regional Qualifier.
At nationals, he placed fifth after going 3-2, winning his final match in the consolation bracket after suffering a disappointing three-overtime defeat in the tournament semifinals. He celebrated his last victory with a backflip, a move that has endeared him to the St. Andrews faithful over the years.
The fifth-place finish allowed Vaughan to capture All-American accolades for the second time in his career, the first such accomplishment by a wrestler in school history. As a sophomore in 2012, Vaughan, along with Justin Hoover, became St. Andrews’s first-ever wrestling All-Americans.
With his career as a student-athlete now over, Vaughan hopes to make the jump to the coaching ranks. He is set to finish taking courses at St. Andrews in December, and in the meantime plans to serve as an assistant on Baranik’s coaching staff during the fall semester.
“I got an opportunity to come back and help coach a little bit so I’m excited about that, so I’ll start building that foundation for coaching,” Vaughan said. “Not many wrestlers end up being great coaches so I’d like to take that on.
“When I sat out for like a week or two, I was like, man, I’m done. It’s a bittersweet feeling. But me being able to pass on what I know to somebody else to make them better will be more rewarding I feel like than anything I can achieve… . That’s the thrill that I’m chasing.”
Vaughan has always had a team-first mindset — despite the recognition he’s garnered, he said one of the moments he’s most proud of was the Knights’ victory on Senior Day in February. St. Andrews defeated Ferrum College 27-17 in Vaughan’s final home appearance, capping the program’s first winning season as a team since 2006. The Knights finished the year 10-9.
“I was more excited that we made it over .500 for the season on Senior Day than when I qualified for nationals,” Vaughan said.
Baranik, who coached the former team captain all four years at the school, said Vaughan is a natural when it comes to coaching and foresees a bright future for him.
“He’s going to make a great coach, no matter where he’s at. He understands kids,” Baranik said. “He knows how to work with kids and has a good rapport and can relate to them.”
While he won’t officially wield the title of assistant coach, Vaughan said is he anxious to begin working with many of his former teammates to help improve their preparation and technique.
“I’m looking forward to getting to work with these guys,” he said. “I think we have a really strong coaching staff, even though I’m not an official coach. Having an upperclassman come back and someone who was there with the underclassmen and able to coach them and try to grow up with them and move them through, it’s more rewarding to see them succeed.”
And don’t expect Vaughan’s patented post-match backflip to go away anytime soon despite his transition from the mat to the sidelines.
“I’ll definitely get out there and do some if someone asks me to — coach will probably ask me to do it a couple of times,” Vaughan said with a laugh.
Logan Martinez can be reached at 910-506-3170. Follow him on Twitter @L_Martinez13.