A half a pound.
That’s all that kept West Charlotte wrestler Malik Baker from competing for a regional championship in 2013-14. He failed to make his weight in the 285-pound division, which brought an abrupt ending to his undefeated season.
The disappointing moment was enough to motivate Baker as he embarked on the 2014-15 campaign, his senior season.
On Feb. 14, Baker became the first West Charlotte wrestler to win a regional title since Jeff Carothers did it in 2011. At the 4A state championships on Feb. 21, Baker lost his first match but won all of his consolation matches to place third overall, tying him for the best placement at the state championship tournament in school history.
“I felt I could have come in first but in my first match I underestimated my competition,” said Baker. “But after that I stayed focused.”
Baker has not always been a big fan of wrestling. He was a sophomore the first time he tried it and it was only because “everyone wanted me to.”
Without any previous background, Baker was not as polished as other wrestlers. He was physically strong but lacked the stamina that the best wrestlers often possess.
Baker struggled to an undistinguished 11-19 record and did not win any type of championship. Because he didn’t have one of the best 16 records in the region, he didn’t even qualify for the regional tournament.
The best thing to happen to Baker as a sophomore was how much his pride got hurt. Competitive by nature, and an overall good athlete, Baker hated losing. He didn’t like knowing so many wrestlers could beat him.
Before his junior season, West Charlotte hired a new coach. It was John Carothers (Jeff Carothers’ father), who built a strong reputation as a local youth program coach.
To start the 2013-14 season, the Lions only had enough wrestlers to fill half a starting lineup. Football season was still in and Baker, a standout offensive and defensive lineman, was one of the wrestlers that John Carothers had heard about.
“I had about six or seven guys and I was trying to figure out what weight classes I needed,” said Carothers. “People told me I had a pretty good heavyweight. As soon as (Baker) stepped on the mat, he started winning.”
As a junior, Baker worked on his cardio so that he could last a three-round match without getting tired. He admits he still wasn’t a big fan of wrestling until he struggled with the devastation of how his season concluded.
One of Baker’s highlights last year was winning the prestigious Holy Angels Tournament at Bojangles’ Coliseum. Baker also won the MECKA 4A conference tournament.
He was one of several Lions wrestlers to qualify for the regional tournament at Hough and carried a 25-0 record with him.
During most of the week leading up to the 2014 regional tournament, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools were closed because of inclement weather and Baker did not have a chance to work out so he could maintain his weight.
As a 285-pound division wrestler, Baker could weigh no more than 287 pounds. He tipped the scale at weigh-ins at 287.5 and Baker was left wondering what could have been had he not eaten breakfast at a fast food restaurant that morning.
“It was a huge shock,” said Baker. “It felt like it wasn’t real.”
After completing an all-conference football season this year, Baker understood that he needed to be more careful about his wrestling weight. He consciously tried to keep himself around 10 pounds below the limit so he didn’t have to worry about the consequences he faced last season.
Baker had another fine season, winning the conference tournament for a second straight year. With his weight being a non-issue, he swept through the regional tournament.
At the state championships, Baker opened with a 3-2 loss to Christopher Davis from Winston-Salem Glenn, the eventual runner-up. Out of state title contention, Baker won his next five matches to place third.
Joe Habina is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Joe? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.