The significance of the individual state wrestling championship he claimed two weeks ago is not lost on Waddell McNeely.
After the Mallard Creek High senior clinched a 12-4 victory against Southern Alamance’s Tyler Ceparano in the finals of the 4A state tournament Feb. 21, he became well aware of his place in the annals of local high school wrestling.
McNeely’s championship is the first in Mallard Creek’s history, and one of the first by a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools wrestler since 2008 (Hough High’s Jordan Thompson also won a 4A title this season, at 182 pounds).
Still, McNeely’s outpouring of emotion after his arm was raised in victory on the Greensboro Coliseum mat eventually became matched by his hopes that he is setting a precedent for Mavericks wrestlers.
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“Some of these young guys think they have to wrestle all their lives to become a state champion,” said McNeely. “I can be someone they can look up to, someone they can say, ‘Hey, he did it.’
“My career at Mallard Creek is over. Now all I can do is leave a mark so that someone else maybe can think they can do it.”
Like many wrestlers at CMS high schools, McNeely showed up at Mallard Creek with no wrestling experience. He followed in the footsteps of his brother, Aaron, who graduated in 2010.
After posting a losing record as a freshman, Waddell McNeely was a regional qualifier the next year. As a junior, he was the 4A West regional runner-up and finished sixth at the state tournament.
In his first three years, McNeely, who won the state title in the 160-pound class, posted a 119-43 record, the most career wins in Mavericks history.
His approach to his senior season was simple: “State championship or bust,” he said.
McNeely’s approach was to intensify his training and competition over the summer. Entering the high school season his confidence was higher, and coach Benjamin Barry felt McNeely’s maturity was at a state-championship level.
“He bought into everything,” said Barry, who is in his second year at Mallard Creek. “He earned a captain’s spot. He was at practice every day and on time.
“But sometimes when you’re a senior, you think you know it all. But he was humble. He was competing hard and expecting the best out of his teammates.”
At the start of the season, Mallard Creek performed well at the Lake Norman duals but McNeely started slow, suffering two of his four losses this season but also beating a state champion from Virginia.
McNeely also had losses at two prestigious winter tournaments; one at the WRAL tourney in Raleigh and the other at the Holy Angels event in Charlotte.
After his last defeat, in early January, McNeely won his final 26 matches to finish the season 57-4. Heading into the regional tournament, McNeely drew additional inspiration when he discovered his state ranking dropped despite his performance-level peaking.
McNeely finished first at the regional, earning one of the top four seeds at the state tournament. But he understood he was in no position to take his lower-seeded opponent lightly.
After winning his first-round match, McNeely said he carried momentum into each subsequent round. In the semifinals, he beat Winston-Salem Glenn’s Dustin McNeer in a 14-1 decision.
In the finals, McNeely jumped out to an early 8-0 lead. With his family in attendance – parents Waddell and Alice and his brother, Aaron, a state qualifier in 2010 in the same weight class his brother would win a championship in – McNeely claimed his title.
McNeely couldn’t contain his emotion after the win, breaking into tears, which eventually led to some good-natured ribbing from teammates and school friends.
“I feel like it brought a lot of recognition to wrestling,” said McNeely. “It’s amazing having all these people come up to me. If anyone saw it, I didn’t really celebrate. I just broke down in tears. People have been making fun about that, but I’m a state champion, and that’s all that matters.”
By virtue of his title, McNeely will participate in the National High School Coaches Association Wrestling National Championships on March 27-29 in Virginia Beach.
Barry says Mallard Creek will honor McNeely’s accomplishment accordingly, issuing him a state-championship ring and by hoisting a banner in the school’s gym.
Joe Habina is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Joe? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.