South Charlotte

Berry duo beyond 'underdog' label

If Larry Gibson and Brandon Rodriguez don't win wrestling state championships this season, it won't be for a lack of trying.

The Berry Academy seniors had never wrestled before their freshman year. But they have improved so much that they now maintain firm positions in the 3A state rankings, making them state championship contenders.

Through the first month of the 2011-12 season, Rodriguez has posted a 10-0 record and is fresh off a title in the 195-pound weight class at last weekend's Jim Hayes Invitational at Rocky River High. He is ranked fifth in 3A in the most recent standings.

Gibson attended the Jim Hayes tournament on the first day but did not compete because of an ensuing track and field recruiting trip. He was undefeated in his first five matches this season and is ranked fourth at 138 pounds.

As his college visit last weekend might indicate, wrestling is neither Gibson's nor Rodriguez' best sport. Gibson is a state champion sprinter on Berry's track and field team. Rodriquez was a four-year varsity player and three-year starter at middle linebacker on Berry's football team.

Rodriguez says the only reason he tried wrestling his freshman season was to stay physically active during football's off-season. He also played baseball that spring.

As a defensive back, Gibson is also a four-year varsity player and three-year starter for Berry's football team. Wrestling coach Charles Clarke, who is also a Berry soccer coach, became aware of the "little scrawny kid" he would see after football practice.

"I met his dad and asked him about getting (Larry) out to wrestle," said Clarke. "He was a quiet but very, very aggressive kid. He doesn't give up that quickly. He's not a quitter."

Rodriguez says the advantage he had going into his freshman season was the wrestling moves he used to practice on his Eastway-area neighborhood friends.

Rodriguez and Gibson had losing records their first year. They quickly reversed that as sophomores, respectively posting marks of 21-19 and 33-12.

With the roster depleted of the leaders during their first two seasons, Clarke appointed his two upstart juniors as team captains last year. Despite a 50-pound difference in their weights, the 135-pound Gibson and 189-pound Rodriguez were often drill partners.

"We used to train against others," said Rodriguez. "Now we train together to gain perfection. We give each other tips and work on our stances. I try to use less power and work more on technique."

Gibson's and Rodriguez' goals in wrestling this season are nothing short of claiming state championships.

"Finally being ranked in the state," says Gibson. "... tells me we're not underdogs anymore."