A.L. Brown wrestling wants to win again at conference

For the past several years, the A.L. Brown wrestling team has been one of the best in its conference. This year, the Wonders want to shed the “one of” tag and be regular season conference champions for the first time since 1988.

With four wrestlers who qualified for the individual state tournament returning to this year’s team, along with a complement of talented teammates, Brown may be on the verge of breaking through.

“I think we have one of the best teams in the state,” said fourth-year head coach Brian Ceresa. “Once we’re wrestling at full strength, we should make some waves – not just in the conference, but in the state tournament as well. I’m excited about everyone getting healthy and doing well.”

Brown has reached the state dual-team playoffs in three out of the past four years. The Wonders lost first round matchups in 2014, 2012 and 2011. Last year, Brown was knocked out by MECKA 4A conference rival Hough.

This season, the Wonders opened their conference schedule with dominant wins over a some of the league’s lower-tier teams. On Dec. 3, the Kannapolis school turned away Hopewell 69-11.

A week later, Brown recorded a perfect 84-0 score over North Mecklenburg, winning all 14 individual matches by either pin or forfeit. Six days after that, Vance lost to the Wonders, 72-9.

Outside of conference matches, the Wonders finished first in team points at the prestigious Holy Angels Invitational on Jan. 2-3, and the team won the Jim Hayes Invitational tournament for the second straight year. They also placed third at two other respectable tournaments: the Bobby Abernathy Memorial at Piedmont High and the Tiger Land Tournament at Newton Foard.

“We’ve had some tournaments that showed us what it will be like to wrestle at states,” said junior Nick Sexton. “Now things are heading in the right direction. Everyone (on the team) is seeing how good we can be so we can get a ring.”

Along with senior Avery Clinding, Sexton is a two-time state qualifier on the team. Two other teammates, senior Keechan Ware and sophomore Isaiah Johnson, made their first trips to the state tournament last season.

Sexton is the only one of the group that has reached the podium at the state tournament. He finished third in the 4A state championships last year and placed fourth at the 3A tournament in 2013. Over his first two seasons, he posted a 82-15 record.

This season, however, Sexton wrestled only four matches in the first month-and-a-half of the season because of a turf toe injury. In his first action this season, he finished first at the Tiger Land tournament.

Offering leadership and encouragement is 160-pound senior Jerry Donatien, who missed most of the past two seasons with back nerve damage known as spondylosis. Despite missing two individual tournaments this season, Donatien won eight of his first nine matches.

Donatien guesses that he competes at 75-80 percent of full strength. When the spondylosis is at its worst, Donatien says he loses some feeling in his left leg.

“It’s all about heart,” he said. “I know the team needs me. I’m a captain. I really like the team we have. People look to me for courage because they know what I’ve been through.”

Even though he’s not a captain like Donatien and Clinding, senior Sabino Martinez is a motivator because of his willingness to move weight classes from year-to-year. This year he has moved between 160 and 170 pounds, and he moved between 152 and 160 in his first two seasons.

Martinez says the success of this year’s team may depend on its defense of points on the mat.

“This year our team knows we can’t give up pins,” said Martinez. “It could make the difference between finishing first or not. In the past we had trouble staying off our backs. Now we know better, and it’s helping us out.”