When Derek Bryant was hired to be Hopewell High’s wrestling coach prior to the 2014-15 season, his goal was to have the program’s first conference championship banner hanging in the school gym within four years.
Halfway to the deadline, the Titans fell one match short of reaching that goal.
Entering its final regular season match of the season on Jan. 28, Hopewell had a chance to tie for first place and share the MECKA 4A conference title. The Titans lost to Kannapolis Brown and dropped to third place in the standings.
Hopewell took great strides this season toward reaching Bryant’s goal. The Titans finished the regular season with a 10-4 overall mark in dual meets, a school record for team victories, according to Bryant.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Charlotte Observer
“The kids are buying into my philosophies I have of being an attack-style wrestler,” said Bryant, 35. “We work hard to be good on our feet, we get off the bottom, and whenever we get a chance we try to finish the match with a pin.”
The 4A state individual tournament will be held Feb. 18-20 at Greensboro Coliseum. Several Hopewell wrestlers enter the Feb. 12-13 regional tournament at Hough High School with a good chance to advance to states.
It’s been a big improvement from last year. Our team just grew. We’re more focused in the room. You could see it in everyone’s eyes. They just wanted to go out there and get it.
Hopewell High junior Esco ‘E.J.’ Walker
Junior Esco “E.J.” Walker is a likely candidate to be competing Feb. 18-20. Last year, he finished as the state runner-up in the 113-pound weight class.
Walker was one of four Hopewell wrestlers to win conference titles on Jan. 30 at Mallard Creek High. The others were seniors Tyjuan Brown (106 pounds), Dion Rivers (195), and Clifton Pittman (heavyweight).
All of them had at least 30 individual victories through the conference tournament. With 107 career victories, Brown is the school record holder. He won 30 of his first 34 matches this season, and two of his losses were forfeits he surrendered after he sustained a concussion at the Holy Angels Tournament in Charlotte in early January.
“I’ve grown in my wrestling,” said Brown. “I came closer and closer (to the school record) every year. All I did was just add to my wins. I just thank God for it all.”
Hopewell’s upper classmen remember just a couple years ago when the team did not have enough wrestlers to fill a starting lineup of 14 competitors. One of Bryant’s tasks was changing the culture of the school’s wrestling program.
A former assistant at Vance and North Iredell, Bryant is nonfaculty coach who lives just a couple miles from Hopewell. The team has grown from six wrestlers when Bryant started to almost 20. He says he wants to reignite a local youth program that can serve as a feeder for the high school.
“It’s been a big improvement from last year,” said Walker, who competed in Georgia as a freshman. “Our team just grew. We’re more focused in the room. You could see it in everyone’s eyes. They just wanted to go out there and get it.”
Walker was close to making his own mark on school history last year when he was eight seconds from wining Hopewell’s first individual wrestling state championship. He advanced to the state tournament finals by turning back Hough’s Caleb Kreitter in the semifinals.
In the championship, Walker was leading Fayetteville Britt’s Bradley Wanovich 6-3 in the match’s closing moments. But Wanovich caught an unguarded Walker with a five-point lateral drop and sealed an 8-6 victory.
“I thought I had it in my hands,” said Walker. “I just went in there not thinking good. He caught me with a lateral drop. I think about it every day. On the way back home (from matches), I just look out the window and think about it.”
Joe Habina is a freelance writer: email@example.com.