Who knew that the Mallard Creek High cross country team could have such an impact on the school’s wrestling program?
Both teams are led by coach Ben Barry, whose background in coaching wrestling was as strong as his lack of cross country coaching experience when he took over in 2013.
Last year, Barry and some of his wrestlers recruited cross country runners as a way to build the number of athletes in the wrestling program. It helped build a strong foundation and this fall Barry encouraged other wrestlers to run cross country as a means to build up their physical endurance.
It’s one of the contributing factors to the success the wrestling Mavericks are having in the early season. Mallard Creek has won its first six dual matches, including a 45-35 victory over state power Lake Norman on Nov. 19.
The Mavericks believe their initial success is another step toward building the wrestling program into a state power. Last year, Mallard Creek followed up a losing season by posting a 21-8 overall record.
Four individuals recorded more than 40 victories and Waddell McNeely, then a 160-pound junior, finished sixth at the 4A state championships. Now a senior, McNeely is the school’s leader in career victories with 119.
“My sophomore year we probably had 20 guys out for the team,” said McNeely. “So you didn’t have that guy under you in your weight class pushing you. This year we have upwards of 40 guys. I feel it’s a pride thing.”
Barry came to Mallard Creek from Independence, where he coached for five years. The Patriots won the conference championship in each of their final three years under Barry.
A Highland Creek resident, Barry’s daughter was a Mallard Creek sophomore when Brett Houghton, who coached cross country and wrestling, transferred to Providence High. Casey Barry asked her father if he would be willing to be her cross country coach.
“I thought about how much time I was spending (coaching) other kids and not my own,” said Barry.
Of the wrestling team members Barry met before last season, only senior Ben Cournoyer was also on the cross country team. Cournoyer, now a walk-on freshman at UNC Chapel Hill, recruited two freshmen runners – Milton Jackson and Jacob Viers – to try wrestling.
Jackson and Viers, now sophomores, are two of Mallard Creek’s better wrestlers. They are also two of eight Mavericks who were on the cross country team this year. Viers was the boys’ team’s second fastest runner.
“To get into conditioning, Coach Barry told us to go out for cross country or to do Darkhorse (a year-round wrestling program),” said Jackson. “Cross country really brought our endurance to the next level. When we go out and wrestle we have a gas tank that helps us keep going.”
Mallard Creek lost almost half its starting lineup from last year to graduation and other circumstances. Led by McNeely, Derrick Davis (a junior at 106 pounds) and Jordan Eley (senior, 132), Barry had no problem filling his roster.
On its first day of matches, Mallard Creek defeated both North Mecklenburg and Lake Norman, which reached the 4A state dual-team semifinals last year. The Mavericks had never beaten the Wildcats.
“It’s shown how we’ve grown,” said Michael Holland, a 182-pound senior. “Last year we had a pretty good lineup. We had a bunch of rookies from last year step up and apply what they’ve learned from the off-season to now.”
The Mavericks then swept their own five-team tournament on Nov. 25.
Mallard Creek hopes to set new standards by the end of the season. The Mavs have never won a regular season conference championship. Last season, they placed second at the MECKA 4A individual tournament.
The last time Mallard Creek reached the state dual-team tournament was 2009.