Coming into the season, Richard Fletcher knew he was going to have to be patient.
Entering his 21st season as Charlotte Latin School's wrestling coach, Fletcher has seen almost everything.
But this season will offer a different challenge.
The Latin lineup will be filled with freshman and sophomores. "I am very enthusiastic about this team's future, though the road ahead will be a tough one," said Fletcher.
Last year the Hawks defeated Forsyth Country Day by more than 20 points to earn the N.C. Independent Schools Athletic Association state title.
The Hawks lost 12 of 14 starters from that team but are led this year by a headstrong group of upperclassmen who know it is going to take work and focus to achieve another state title.
Senior captains Peter McClelland (140 pounds), Alex Sanz (135) and Alec Dragelin (152), along with junior captain Luke Hedrick (189) are being counted on to get the Hawks back in contention. Fletcher also expects contributions from seniors Tucker Fogg (125), Matt Feld (145) and Nick Decarlo (285).
"Even though we lost so many seniors, and it would be easy to say this is a rebuilding year and take it slow, we won a state title last year and want another one this year," said Sanz.
A 70-6 loss early in the season to 1A power Newton-Conover toughened the Hawks, who are not accustomed to taking losses.
"Wrestling is a one-on-one sport, it is just you and one other guy," said Hedrick. "When you lose as bad as we did, and we got beat up bad, it is a challenge to each and every guy on this team to step up. It is all about pride, and we have a lot of it."
"The most motivating thing is to get better after losing like that," said McClelland. "I don't think any of us want to feel that again."
With so many young wrestlers new to the program, Fletcher has begun showing more match tapes and drilling on fundamentals more than in the past.
"We have the potential to be as good as they were, and the films help us see that," said Dragelin. "We just have to get some of the rust off."
The Hawks have worked on getting the younger wrestlers experience during practice. In years past, captains would drill with captains, seniors with seniors, and there was very little mixing. This year, freshman, seniors and captains are all working together.
"We are not here to be these big upperclassmen, we are a brotherhood," Dragelin said. "Wrestling is an individual sport, but we are one unit and one team."
There will be tough competition for that title from a veteran and talented Providence Day team. Wesleyan Christian and Charlotte Christian should also be in contention for the state title. The Hawks, who scrimmaged against the Chargers and had a match against the Trojans earlier this year, see where they need to improve.
"We got to see those teams so early in the year and it was really helpful," Sanz said.
The Hawks know they are young, but the captains have seen fire and desire from the freshman, many of whom will play large roles.
Latin wants to get back to where it was last year, and can use early season setbacks like the one against Newton-Conover to make them better.
That transformation might have come the first weekend in December, as the Hawks finished second in an eight-team match at Weddington. Sanz and Dragelin won all four of their matches, and McClelland finished with two wins. Fletcher said he was thrilled with the effort of his team and hopes this is where they start their normal peak.
"We are all working together and we have a good mix of upper- and under-classmen, and we are all friends, but we push each other every day to be better," McClelland said.
"Teams in our program have lost seniors before, it happens every year," said Hedrick. "You don't expect too much of a drop-off, the next guy has to step up and be ready to go. The older guys know what it takes, and we have the pride and determination to show the younger guys what we know."