Ardrey Kell wrestling head coach Tim Higgins and assistant coach Mike Sottile had a new strategy for the Knights this year: quality over quantity.
Rather than wrestling 20 or even 30 matches like past years, the Ardrey Kell wrestlers competed in just 17 matches.
"We see the difference in the guys at the end of the year," said Sottile. "They're not banged up and burnt out from wrestling too many matches."
The schedule was smaller, but it wasn't easier. Outside of tough conference matches against teams like Independence, the Knights took part in the King of the Mat tournament at North Davidson, one of the premier tournaments in the state.
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"I only went there to test our best kids, because it's at a whole other level," said Higgins. "I think our kids being battle-tested like that really helps come tournament time. They're used to having hard matches."
The tough schedule prepared Ardrey Kell for the postseason, where the Knights won the Southwestern 4A conference tournament for the first time in the school's six-year history. The Knights secured the victory by having wrestlers in all 14 weight classes place in the championship or consolation finals.
"I couldn't be happier about that," said Higgins about his wrestlers' finishes. "That says it all. Every single person on the team showed up that day."
Seniors Sean Billings (145), Akio Fujiwara (132) and Alex Marbury (120), and junior Jassim Abdelaziz (152) all won conference championships.
The biggest surprise of the tournament was sophomore Patrick Dickey (138), who only wrestled two conference matches before finishing second in the conference tournament after a Knight senior in front of him moved up a weight class.
"I really didn't know what to expect," said Dickey. "It was really exciting to go through the tournament and wrestle the two seed and the three seed and get that little element of surprise. They were not expecting me to be any good."
The Knights started strong in the conference tournament, with all 14 wrestlers pinning their first round opponents. Higgins said he believes that his team is one of the best finishing teams he's seen all year.
"Our team's been really good at pinning this year," said Marbury. "We've been pin hungry."
Ardrey Kell won the regular season conference championship two years ago, but had struggled in the conference tournament. The accomplishments are different, but Higgins said he's proud of the conference tournament win because it shows "where your finished product is."
This is the most experienced team Higgins has had since he started coaching when the school opened. Out of the 14 weight classes, the Knights usually have nine seniors competing in a match, though not all of the seniors have wrestled all four years. Higgins also said the team is more balanced this year.
"We don't have any of those weight classes that we can't count on to pull out a win," he said.
After the conference tournament, Ardrey Kell (12-6) went into the N.C. High School Athletic Association 4A dual-team tournament as the SW4A's No. 2 seed (based on regular season finish) and lost in the first round to defending champion Parkland, the No. 1 4A team in the state, according to retrorankings.com.
To take the next step as a program, Higgins and Sottile would like to have a feeder program for Ardrey Kell. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools doesn't offer middle school wrestling, which puts county schools at a disadvantage against other districts that have middle school programs.
"I would die to have middle school wrestling," said Higgins. "It's nice to be competitive in Mecklenburg, but we want to be competitive everywhere."
Now the Knights are preparing for the NCHSAA 4A West Regional individual tournament Feb. 17-18, where they hope to qualify wrestlers for the state tournament later this month. Ardrey Kell has had several state qualifiers over the years, with its highest individual finish being fourth.
Higgins said Billings, Fujiwara, Marbury and senior Zach Blossfeld have the best chance of qualifying for states. Billings has gone 22-2 to finish the season after starting the season just over .500. Fujiwara, just in his second year of varsity wrestling, has shown a lot of improvement and is a tenacious and scrappy wrestler, he said. Marbury is the best wrestler technique-wise, according to his coach. Blossfeld (170), who finished second in the conference but won his match at Parkland, is having a great year after breaking both bones in his arm last year.
Higgins would like to do well at regionals and states, but he already considers this season a success.
"It's been, for me, the most rewarding (season), not because we won the conference tournament, but just the group of kids we have," he said. "Whatever the wins and losses are, I've had the best season."