Although Ryan Johns wrestled only 17 matches last year as a sophomore, his season was far from incomplete.
Almost one-third of the Mount Pleasant wrestler's matches came at the regional tournament, where Johns came up just one victory short of advancing to the state tournament.
The pleasantly surprising way his late-blooming season closed served as a springboard for this year. Johns, now a 182-pound junior, is ranked among the top three 3A wrestlers in his weight class.
Coming off a South Piedmont 3A tournament championship - his first - Johns thinks he can distinguish himself at the regional and state meets. The 3A Midwest regional will be Friday and Saturday at Thomasville Ledford; the state tournament will be at the Greensboro Coliseum Feb. 23-25.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Charlotte Observer
Sporting a 36-5 record, Johns has dibs on a high seed at regionals. He attributes his success this season to his offseason weight room strength conditioning and a shot of confidence he gained early this season.
At Mount Pleasant's home invitational tournament Dec. 10, Johns topped his weight class with three impressive wins: two pins and a technical fall (a mercy-rule win by 15 points). It was the first tournament he had ever won since picking up wrestling as a seventh-grader.
"Winning the Tiger Invitational ... basically showed me that I was at a higher level with wrestling than I had ever been," said Johns, "and if I kept up the hard work, I could do anything I wanted."
His tournament championship was part of an early-season stretch in which he won his first 12 matches, and 20 of his first 21. Two weeks later, Johns recorded his second tournament championship at the prestigious Mark Adams Invitational at Cary High.
Johns had to work a little harder that time around. After recording victories by technical fall, major decision and decision, he earned a 7-4 victory over Raleigh Sanderson's Marvin Vazquez in the finals. Johns called the tournament title the highlight of his junior season so far.
"He had a little adversity in middle of the (final) match," said Mount Pleasant coach Greg Hinson. "He got reversed and came close to giving up back points. But he went on to dominate the third period and win the match."
It's that kind of perseverance that put Johns in position for his postseason run a year ago. Having wrestled just six matches as a freshman, Johns did not gain a starting position until January of his sophomore season.
He filled in admirably for an injured teammate that year, winning four of his first five matches and carrying an 8-4 mark going into regionals. After adding three presumptive losses to his record in order to reach the minimum 15 matches, Johns opened the tournament as one of the lower seeds.
He lost his opening battle, then notched three straight victories to reach the consolation-round semifinals. In a 6-4 decision loss, Johns was two points from qualifying for the state tournament.
Johns, who grew up playing baseball and basketball, said wrestling is the only sport he's played in which his dad has never coached him. His father, Mike Johns, is head football coach and boys track and field coach at Mount Pleasant High.
Ryan Johns was an offensive lineman and linebacker for the Tigers this past season. In track and field, he was a member of the 1,600-meter relay team that qualified for the state meet last year.
"I'd say we're a football family," said the younger Johns. "Me and all my brothers have all played since we were 4 or 5 years old and always loved it."
But wrestling also runs in the family.
Ryan's brother Robert is a freshman on the Mount Pleasant wrestling team, while his youngest brother, Adam, wrestles as a seventh-grader at Mount Pleasant Middle School.