On the Rise: Local Wrestling Going Strong
Moore County is currently witnessing the pinnacle of a wrestling renaissance.
The sport is more popular than ever at all three of the county’s public high schools, while the support for those teams, as well as their feeder middle school and youth wrestling programs, is at an all-time high.
Union Pines is coming off a runner-up finish at the N. C. High School Athletic Association 3-A individual wrestling state championship last season. The Vikes lost to eventual 2011 3-A dual team state champion Orange by three points (27-24) in the second round of the dual team playoffs.
The campaign marked the fourth consecutive year that the Vikings have set new school records at the state tournament, as head coach Matt Ragsdale has turned Union Pines into a perennial state power in the sport.
“In my first year as coach of Union Pines (2003-2004 season), we only pulled out one (of 10) section of bleachers and maybe there were 15-20 people at the match at the most,” said Ragsdale. “Then, if you go back to the Orange match in the dual playoffs last season, we had our entire bleachers out, and there were 700 or more people there.
“From that first year to where we are now, the state of Union Pines’ wrestling program has gone from near obscurity — with seven wrestlers sticking it out that season — and with tons of dedication and work has grown to where we are at now.”
Ragsdale said that attendance really picked up when Union Pines added a mat lamp in 2008. The lamp allows the house lights to be turned off, as it shines a spotlight directly down on the action. According to Ragsdale that is when wrestling matches at Bob Ward Gymnasium became events, including a public address announcer and a disc jockey. Union Pines’ largest recorded crowd was a dual against South Johnston in 2009 that drew more than 1,000 people.
“I think more people in Moore County are becoming familiar with wrestling than ever before,” said Ragsdale. “It is an exciting time for the sport with what has been going on at Union Pines for the past four-plus years, as well as what is going on this season at Pinecrest and also up at North Moore.”
North Moore picked up its first dual team win in nine seasons, with a 45-33 home victory Nov. 30 over Eastern Randolph. Last year the Mustangs competed in the sport for the first time in eight years, but did not have a full team or any home matches.
Meanwhile, Pinecrest is coming off its own successful 2011 campaign. Senior Dustin Roemer is the reigning 4-A 145-pound state champion and recently signed a full scholarship with the University of Virginia. As a team, the Patriots captured the 4-A Southeastern Conference regular season and tournament championships, qualifying for the second round of the dual team state playoffs — finishing with a 13-6 record in dual competition — and placed sixth as a team at the NCHSAA individual wrestling championships.
Currently, the Patriots are highly ranked in the state by several different polls, as are the Vikings. Head coach Travis Flinchum’s Pinecrest squad has seven of its wrestlers currently ranked in the top 10 in their weight classes, while the Vikings have at least four ranked.
Flinchum, a 2002 Pinecrest graduate and state runner-up at 135, has a strong feeling of pride that he has helped his alma mater re-establish wrestling as a sport of significance at the school.
“I love knowing that our program has become so tough,” said Flinchum. “It was not me alone by any means, though.
“My name may come after ‘head coach,’ but it was not all me. I have some of the best coaches: Andy Socha, Sam Narayan and Zack Martin, who care about the sport and the kids.
“People like Jim Ransdell, Chad Homes and other assistants at the middle school programs have been a huge piece of the Pinecrest puzzle. As have the parents that help set up our tournaments, do so much paperwork and run the kids all over the place — so it has been a true community effort.”
‘A Culture of Wrestling’
A little more than a month ago, on Dec. 1, Pinecrest displayed its dual prowess on the mat of its home gym in Southern Pines. That night the Patriots defeated Union Pines 56-19 in front of a packed house at James Moore Gymnasium. The win was the first Pinecrest had earned over the Vikings in six seasons.
One fan with a particularly keen interest in the dual was former Pinecrest head wrestling coach Tim Nocton.
“As I watched that match, mostly I was feeling a lot of pride,” said Nocton. “Some of it of course was about Pinecrest and how well they looked, but also I was very prideful of Travis and Zach Martin, one of Travis’ assistants who also wrestled for me.
“It was just a great feeling, especially when they started doing some of the series I taught them, just to see the team and my former players doing so well.”
Now the physical education department chair and an associate professor at Sandhills Community College, Nocton coached the Pinecrest wrestling team for 15 years, from 1989–2003.
“History-wise, when I came in Pinecrest was the only school (in the county) to have wrestling — Union Pines and North Moore didn’t,” said Nocton. “That was one of my goals: to establish a culture of wrestling at Pinecrest and beyond into the community. So we started a little youth group through parks and recreation, and began doing the state parks and recreation youth tournament. Then we did some AAU (tournaments), and as it progressed, Jim Ransdell took over the helm and has continued to run the youth program.
“From there we constantly started pushing, trying to get a middle school wrestling program. Having getting that going and then with Union Pines and North Moore getting wrestling started, and especially Union Pines getting so strong — it was a really good way to get a good number of people out and interested. And at that match there were a bunch of middle school wrestlers there watching, wanting one day to be on those teams and compete on that mat, and that is really good stuff — it is what it’s all about.”
Flinchum wrestled under Nocton for four seasons and holds his former coach in the highest of regards.
“In describing coach Nocton, I just remember one of the greatest coaches ever,” said Flinchum. “He knew exactly when and how to motivate his athletes to be their best. I learned so much from him the year after I graduated while competing and coaching with him at the same time.
“The way he went about approaching the sport and the kids was amazing. He really made you realize how being a good person as well as a tough wrestler were equally important.”
Middle School Wrestling
Ransdell, the founder and president of the Sandhills Sandcats, a local youth wrestling club, has been a main cog in the wheel that initially started wrestling rolling in Moore County and has remained instrumental in the success the sport is now seeing now in the area.
The Sandhills Sandcats wrestling club was established under Ransdell, in 1997, after branching off from the Southern Pines Parks and Recreation wrestling team in 1996.
Since that time, the program has flourished into a state and national powerhouse youth wrestling club. It has been averaging 50-plus wrestlers per year and currently has an eight-person volunteer coaching staff. In 2001, the Sandcats were the Amateur Athletic Association (AAU) state co-champions, and several of Pinecrest’s top wrestlers this season were former members, including senior captain Dustin Roemer and Garrett Bateman.
Ransdell was also a driving force, along with Ragsdale, in bringing wrestling to the local middle schools.
In 2007, Ragsdale went to the Moore County Schools in an effort to add wrestling as a middle school sport.
“I went to Dr. (Larry) Upchurch, who was in charge of middle school athletics at the time,” Ragsdale said, “and I explained to him how important wrestling was to some of the people around here. I told him every other sport had a middle school program and I thought wrestling should have one too, and he eventually agreed.
“So I talked to Jim Ransdell and the two of us sat down and came up with a plan where the Copperheads would supply New Century with a mat (Crain’s Creek was not yet around), and the Sandcats would do the same thing for Southern Middle and West Pines. That is how wrestling got started at the middle school area, and now Crain’s Creek has a team too, and all four schools have a solid program and wrestle a complete schedule.”
Feeder Programs Key
Both Ragsdale and Flinchum feel the youth and middle school wrestling is a big reason why the state of the sport in Moore County is so superior.
“The youth programs around here are amazing,” said Flinchum. “You have to remember that without it, most kids come to high school with no knowledge of wrestling. Most have had exposure to basketball, football, baseball, etc … so we are basically taking the athlete from scratch in wrestling. With the youth programs, that obstacle is encountered less and less. So, I would definitely like to thank everyone involved in those feeder programs.
“When I took over the (wrestling) program (in 2008), I believe we had always been known for having strong individuals at Pinecrest. Our focus shifted to how special it would be with 15-20 strong individuals in the program. It kind of came back to bite us in the butt, though, seeing as how we have quite a few kids that should be starting this season but just can’t quite get in the lineup.”
Ragsdale realizes that the feeder programs are essential to the success of the high school teams.
“To have quality middle school wrestling programs feed into a high school program is absolutely vital, if that high school team hopes to be able to compete with the top squads in the state,” said Ragsdale. “To be a state champion contender you have to have kids coming in with plenty of experience, and then in the off-season you have to be able to keep them training with our Copperhead club.
“That is why both our middle school systems and our Copperhead youth wrestling club are so important to the overall success of the Union Pines wrestling program as a whole. It all works together.”
The Copperheads Wrestling Club, led by Viking assistant coach Chris Vondruska, was founded in 2008.
Vondruska, who was named the 2010 North Carolina assistant coach of the year by the National Wrestling Coaches Association, is the head coach for the Copperheads, which provides wrestling services to all student-athletes, typically ages 5-18.
As a year-round-club, it competes in events throughout the high school offseason and teaches technique in three styles of wrestling: collegiate/folk style, freestyle, and Greco-Roman.
“The Copperheads allows us to work with the younger kids and get them familiar with the sport in a fun way,” said Ragsdale. “We always stress having fun with the younger age groups, but soon we will see homegrown products with four-year club wrestlers entering Union Pines as freshmen, and then we will see a new breed of competitive ninth-graders.
“Also the Copperheads helps benefit our high school program tremendously, because it provides both our current and future Viking wrestlers with offseason training and travel. In that aspect the club has already been a huge factor to our growth and success at Union Pines.”
Respect Breeds Success
In closing, both Ragsdale and Flinchum were noticeably positive about the current overall state of wrestling in Moore County.
“I think the fact that Union Pines and Pinecrest are so close geographically and are trying to compete with each other, but in a completely respectful way, has been mutually beneficial to both teams,” Ragsdale said. “That rivalry, while friendly and good-spirited, has only made us both better. From here on out I look for us to stay up here at or near the peak we have climbed.
“This year Pinecrest is a top-five team in the state, and that is just going to keep us working hard and trying to get better. Same thing when we were ranked first or second over the past few years. I believe it drove and motivated Pinecrest. So that is a great thing to have, and now North Moore is back on the scene and seems to be moving in the right direction, too.”
Flinchum’s sentiments echoed those of Ragsdale.
“We will always have years where we may not be as strong as the previous season,” he said, “but we just have to keep up the hard work. One thing we have not done is reduce the workload to keep in the numbers.
“The past three years that workload definitely pushed some (guys) away, but then this year about 40 of them said, ‘We are here to stay,’ so we are super excited about the numbers and the quality of our kids in our program here at Pinecrest.
“It has been great having Union Pines right next door for motivation as well. We are super excited about the North Moore program coming back and wish them all the best.”
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