Before this season, Waddell McNeely hadn’t won a high school wrestling tournament.
He had come close, and he had always shown promise – but he hadn’t been able to break into the top.
This year, the junior has been making up for lost time. He’s posted a 34-3 record and jumped into the state’s top 10 wrestlers in the 4A division at 160 pounds, according to North Carolina high school wrestling website retrorankings.com.
McNeely, who wrestles for Mallard Creek High, has also made the podium in all but one tournament so far this season.
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A season highlight has been a first-place finish at the 2014 Holy Angels Invitational Jan. 3-4 at Bojangles’ Arena in Charlotte.
There, McNeely – who entered the 56-team tournament seeded sixth at 160 pounds – battled hard for two consecutive days before eventually taking down top-seeded Austin Tucker of Kernersville Glenn in a 9-2 decision in the final.
“(McNeely’s) got the most wins on the team,” Mavericks first-year head coach Ben Barry said. “In the wrestling room and at practice, he’s a great competitor; and he pushes his teammates to be better and always expects the best from them.
“Coming over from another school, I knew he was pretty talented. And he was committed that this is what he wanted to do. But this year, he’s just been winning, and I can’t tell you that there’s been too many matches where I’ve been surprised at the result,” Barry said.
McNeely’s performance at the Holy Angels Invitational helped the Mavericks place 12th overall in the tournament. The Mavericks have a 9-4 record on the season, despite missing some key members who were held up because they play on the school’s football team.
McNeely’s newfound success suggested the question: What’s changed?
Over the summer, Vance High wrestling coach Casey Boyle – who also happens to be one of the leaders of the Dark Horse club wrestling team – approached him and invited him to join.
The Darkhorse club team brought together some of the top wrestlers in the Charlotte area and let them practice against each other, twice a day at times.
In fact, seven wrestlers from Darkhorse found their way onto the podium in the Holy Angels Invitational.
“It was really cool to see all my friends bring home brackets,” McNeely said. “It was great to share with them after how hard we’ve all worked.”
Of McNeely’s three losses this season, two have come to Lake Norman’s Eddie McGrail. Ranked No. 2 in the state at 160 pounds now, McGrail placed third at 145 pounds in last year’s 4A state tournament.
McNeely lost his first match to McGrail by two points and his second by just one.
“It’s a little frustrating,” he said. “Last year (McGrail) tech-falled me. This year, I’m pretty sure I can beat him. … It’s frustrating, but also humbling. I know there’s still things I need to work on.”
With a strong commitment to offseason training with his club team, a new high school coach and a strong group of motivated teammates, things have all come together this season for McNeely.
“It’s been like a puzzle,” he said. “I wouldn’t be as successful as I have been now without coach Barry, or the club work or my teammates. I can’t point to one thing in particular. It’s just all come together to get me where I am now.”
McNeely’s goal is to win a state title and become the second Mallard Creek wrestler to record 100 wins in his career.
With a record of 86-51, it’s a mark that’s certainly within reach.
“It would mean a lot to me,” he said. “Talking to the older guys that have graduated from the program, they always told me that if I could put in the work I’d reach that mark.
“Hopefully, I can be the first state champ to come out of Mallard Creek.”