As the Amateur Athletic Union season nears its end, several members of the Charlotte-based Pit Bulls youth wrestling program have their sites set on state titles.
On March 10, Concord's Cabarrus Arena and Events Center will host the AAU state tournament. At least three local competitors could win championships.
Through seven tournaments during the 2011-12 season, Quintin Mickerson is undefeated. Teammates Antoine Williams and Esco Walker have won championships in six of those events. The three, all in middle school, have taken distinctly different paths.
Mickerson is nearly a lifelong Pit Bull. He started wrestling when he was 4 years old, following his older brother, who got his start a year earlier.
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A 14-year-old from the Sunset Road area, Mickerson has won every AAU state championship except one since he started competing. Coach John Carothers says Mickerson's defeat in the 2006 state championship might be the only time he has lost to another wrestler from North Carolina.
This season, Mickerson is wrestling at 119 pounds. One of the titles he won was the Pit Bulls' home tournament, the Southern Championship, at the Grady Cole Center on Feb. 4.
Williams and Walker also were Southern Championship winners.
With his father's encouragement to start wrestling in 2006, Williams consistently earned runner-up and third place during his first season. Williams took a three-year hiatus from the Pit Bulls when the program ended its affiliation with a local youth advocacy organization to become independent.
This season he started thinking how wrestling might be a ticket to earning a college scholarship.
"He probably lost some technique and skills," Carothers said. "It probably took him a month to get things back. He's kind of a natural wrestler anyway. He had enough experience from his past to keep him competitive.
"I'm probably stronger than I was," said Williams, a 126-pound eighth-grader at Whitewater Middle School. "I'm strong, and quick, and I know my moves."
Of the Pit Bulls wrestlers, Walker may have made the most progress in the shortest period. When he joined the program four years ago, Carothers said, Walker won about a fourth of his first-year matches.
"A lot of the kids I wrestled had wrestled for four or five years," said Walker. "I had to learn takedowns and how to get up from the bottom. It made me want to work harder. People kept beating me and I wanted to beat them."
A Whitewater Middle seventh-grader, Walker's improvement started to show in his second season when he made the North Carolina Elite team for the first of three straight years. By representing his state, Walker got to compete against wrestlers from other states.
Competing in yet another wrestling organization, Walker won the USA Wrestling state championship in 2011. He finished as the AAU state runner-up last year.
This season, Walker won 19 of his first 22 matches. His season highlight was defeating a national champion wrestler from Columbia to win a tournament in Fort Mill in early January.
As a team, the Pit Bulls will try to capture a 10th state championship in 14 years. They last won the AAU team state title in 2008.