Toby Okwara didn’t get many chances to wrestle in middle school.
Not a lot of other 13- and 14-year-olds had matured enough to compete against the Charlotte Latin heavyweight.
“There’s just not many kids his size in middle school,” said Latin coach Richard Fletcher.
Okwara, a 6-foot-3, 285-pounder, has come a long way during his first two high school seasons. That development was capped off by winning the N.C. Independent Schools Athletic Association 287-pound state title last weekend.
“It means so much,” said Okwara. “I wasn’t a very experienced wrestler coming out of middle school, so I knew it would be tough, that I would have to work a lot to do this. All the hard work has paid off.”
Fletcher said that the sophomore possesses skills he rarely sees in his weight class.
“A lot of heavyweights are very immobile and very static when they’re wrestling, they have one or two moves in their arsenal,” said Fletcher. “But Toby wrestles like a lightweight. Although you wouldn’t see it by looking at him, he’s quick on the mat.”
The coach credits that to Okwara becoming a “student of the sport” after falling short of a championship last year, closing a 28-11 season as state runner-up.
“He’s a completely different wrestler,” said Fletcher. “He’s done the work during the offseason.”
Even as he worked out with the Hawks’ football team during the summer, Okwara made time to wrestle at weekend tournaments to try to get better.
The 16-year-old said that mat experience has been key in his 33-8 season.
“I’ve been there before so the reaction comes natural,” he said. “It becomes instinct, second nature.”
Fletcher also gives Okwara, who plays both offensive and defensive tackle on the football field, credit for taking risks and being willing to try new moves.
Okwara is more aggressive and often takes shots at his opponents. He also has better technique on both top and bottoms and excels with his pin moves.
Making 16 pins during the regular-season, that was even more evident at the state tournament. After a first-round bye, Okwara pinned his first two opponents – both in 36 seconds or less.
Despite having to wrestle off his back early in the final match, Okwara also pinned Providence Day’s Chike Ekwanu is 2 minutes, nine seconds to claim the 287-pound championship.
“I did not want to lose again,” said Okwara, recalling last year’s title match. “That was one of the worst feelings I’ve had in a while, and I did not want to feel that again.”
Okwara’s state title helped Latin defend its team championship. Teammates Billy McClellan (122), Charlie Horvath (140), Alex Julian (184) and Sam Wilson (222) also won individual titles for the Hawks.
Okwara goes into the National Prep Wrestling Championships, which are scheduled for Feb. 22-23 at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, on a 17-match win streak dating back to Jan. 4.
He hopes to win a match or two at the prestigious event, which brings together private-school state champions from across the nation.
With two more years ahead of him, he hopes to win more state championships and maybe even place at prep nationals to earn All-America honors.
Fletcher thinks he has the potential for that and more.
“Once his coordination and strength fully catches up with his body, he’s just going to be a monster,” said Fletcher.
“The sky’s the limit for Toby, whether it’s D-I football or wrestling. ... Whatever he wants to do, if he puts the work in, I think he can do it.”
Regionals kick off Friday
The N.C. High School Athletic Association individual regional tournaments will be held Feb. 22-23.
The top four finishers in each weight class will qualify for next week’s state championships in Greensboro.
Regional hosts include: Hendersonville (1A West), Piedmont (2A Midwest), West Lincoln (2A West), Hickory Ridge (3A Midwest), North Gaston (3A West) and Hough (4A West).