Jackson Dowless came into this season knowing he had big shoes to fill for Lake Norman High School's wrestling team.
In his new 220-pound weight class, the junior would be expected to take the place of three-time state champion Harrison Honeycutt, who's now wrestling at N.C. State.
Dowless spent the past two seasons learning from Honeycutt, as both hovered around the same weight and were paired in practice on a daily basis.
"Wrestling with Harrison was the worst thing ever, having to go through getting beat every day," Dowless said. "I had to mentally prepare myself just to go to practice, knowing I would be wrestling the No. 1 guy in the state with three state championships. But Harrison made me a better wrestler, and I learned a lot from him."
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Dowless said he also learned a lot from his older brother, Hunter, who was the 4A West regional and state runner-up in his 171-pound weight class last year.
Hunter and Jackson often wrestled in the living room growing up and always pushed each other to compete at a high level.
"Hunter started wrestling in seventh grade and really set the bar and the standard for what I wanted to be," said the younger Dowelss, adding that he followed his brother into the sport. "I always wanted to match Hunter or be better than him."
Dowless also started wrestling in the seventh grade when his current Lake Norman wrestling coach, Morgan Fore, was still coaching at Brawley Middle.
Dowless has been working with Fore year-round - also on the third-year Wildcat coach's N.C. Elite Wrestling Club team - even while Dowless plays defensive lineman on the Lake Norman football team in the fall.
"I've seen the whole progression of Jackson as a wrestler," said Fore. "He was always a hard worker who had the desire to be great. I think he has just started to step into that role of being a leader for us."
Dowless has been a major part of the core of the Wildcat team, which is also led by seniors Patrick Devlin (145 pounds) and Jonathan DiBernard (182) and junior Cody Karns (113).
"I really like the way Jackson has handled himself this year," Fore said. "He has adjusted from being a role player for us to being a main guy who we depend on to win and score in every dual meet and tournament."
The 17-year-old had his ups and downs last year, when he wrestled in the 285-pound heavyweight class because Honeycutt was entrenched in the 215-pound class.
Dowless, who's 6 feet tall, was constantly wrestling opponents 50 or 60 pounds heavier, which forced him to adjust his style on the mat.
"Jackson was never totally comfortable as a heavyweight, because he really wasn't one," Fore said. "He had to work very hard to be quicker and fitter than his opponents. I think in the long run it helped him, but now he is in a weight class (220 pounds) where he's a lot comfortable."
Late last season, Dowless got a big dose of confidence when he switched with Honeycutt at the I-Meck tournament and won the league championship at 215 pounds.
Dowless went onto finish fifth in the heavyweight class at regionals, missing the opportunity to go to states.
He said his final loss only motivated him more to begin getting ready for this season. That work seems to be paying off, as he's started the year 45-6, recording 19 pins going into the 4A West Regional last weekend.
Dowless won his second straight I-Meck title, this time at 220 pounds, and was key to leading Lake Norman (29-5) to its third consecutive regular season I-Meck crown. He also won the prestigious Bearcat Invitational title this season and is ranked No. 5 in the state among 220-pounders from class 4A schools, according to retrorankings.com.
Dowless now has one more goal: to wrestle in the 4A state individual tournament, which begins Thursday at Greensboro Coliseum. He said he hopes to get on the podium, which would require him to finish among the top six wrestlers in his weight class.
"Just thinking about states makes my heart race," Dowless said. "I feel like there is a lot of pressure on me to be at my best. I love the pressure of trying to win a big match for my team and my school."
(This article went to print before the 4A West regional tournament. For updates, visit lknprepsports.blogspot.com.)