LUMBERTON — When Thomas Thompson entered a triple overtime scenario during the third place match of the NCHSAA 4A East Regional tournament on Sunday, Lumberton’s 195-pounder wasn’t overly concerned.
After spending two months working on situational strategies, the junior wrestler was barely fazed.
“Thomas wasn’t even breathing hard. Thomas wasn’t tired. He just had a smile on his face because he knew what was going to happen. The guy couldn’t stop him from standing up,” Lumberton coach Jamie Bell said.
Tied at 2 with Jack Britt’s Saetyre McDowell, who entered the tournament seeded third and ranked in the state’s Top 5, Thomas used his unique escape tactic to get the final two points of the match and take third place in the region. It gives him a trip to state in his first season wrestling varsity full time and his second year of wrestling overall.
He’s one of two Lumberton wrestlers heading to state, joining senior Josh Watts, who wrestles at 152 pounds. Matches start tonight at the Greensboro Coliseum.
“It’s amazing,” Thomas said. “I’ve never done anything like this. I’ve never succeeded like this in football, I don’t think I’m going to succeed like this in track or any other sport I play.”
This year, everything has clicked.
After missing weight numerous times last season, Thompson dropped more than 30 pounds while doing crossfit training over the summer for football. With the Lumberton wrestlers focused heavily on maintaining stamina for late in a match, he’s become capable of going the distance in any matchup.
Like many wrestlers adjusting to the speed of the varsity level, his wins and losses were even early on but he got things clicking after beating Purnell Swett’s Tristan Jacobs in December.
“It turned the light bulb on for me,” Thompson said. “I didn’t see it at first but as soon as I beat him I started winning a whole lot more matches, guys I didn’t even think I could beat.”
It’s something Bell said happens with a lot of wrestlers once they get their first taste of success.
“They realize this is something they can be very good at and that’s when the dedication level starts to turn around,” Bell said. “Your new guys come in and they’re unsure, they don’t know, then they’re getting their butt kicked for a while but once they get that one time where they take the guy down and they stick them on the mat and they feel what that feels like and it gets a guy hungry and they just want more.”
It created a drive that fueled Thompson throughout the season, helped also by an ability to pick up on subtleties while wrestling his coaches.
“He’s let us beat him up a little bit and he just picked that up and he’s been using those things,” Bell said.
All of the learning has led to a style similar in theory to Muhammad Ali’s famous rope-a-dope strategy, where Thompson slowly lets an opponent tire himself out and then capitalizes late in the match.
It was what propelled him to the win in the third-place match, where he focused on avoiding the takedown.
“Thomas went in there with the same mentality,” Bell said. “He knew he couldn’t blow down the front door on this guy, he couldn’t just throw him around. The guy couldn’t take him down, it was good defense.”
Once in triple overtime, he went for his signature escape, starting in the bottom position and using a squatting motion to thrust up before running straight out.
“He jumps straight up and if you’ve never wrestled him before that can take you by surprise seeing a guy with his body weight and your body weight just squat-jump right up onto his feet,” Bell said.
The result has sent him to state, a place he never expected to be when the season started.
“I wasn’t even thinking about it like this. It’s a fresh start.”
Watts finds redemption in regional semifinal
The first time that Lumberton senior Josh Watts wrestled Laney’s Russell Harrison Jr. this season, the result wasn’t pretty.
Officially, Watts lost by medical default following a shoulder injury late in the match, but the scoreboard before the injury was heavily in Harrison’s favor.
“When I say the kid beat him, the kid really handed it to him,” Bell said. “He didn’t just lose by just a few points.”
“He was the first person to actually beat me,” Watts said. “The other losses that I had were just, I was tired, I was a little strained out from going on and on in the season.”
Though Watts eventually beat Cape Fear’s Evan Burks for the regional championship, it was a semifinal rematch with Harrison that worried him. It was the fear of history repeating itself.
“You always have that subconscious little thing that’s holding you back. You’re saying ‘I don’t think I can possibly do this because that might happen again,’” Watts said “I just went out there and said ‘Well, I’m going to forget about that and I’m just going to go out there the way I’ve been wrestling.”
Though Watts let Harrison get ahead early, once a few points had been scored, he settled into his comfort zone and got late points to win.
“All the hard work and stuff paid off for that match,” Watts said.
Bell knew what the match meant to his senior.
“The greatest thing about it was when he won and you just in saw his face that he had conquered so many demons just by (winning) that one match,” Bell said. “It didn’t matter what happened in the next match, he was going to state, he beat the guy that had been lingering over his head for so long.”
With the semifinal win out of the way, a confident Watts beat Burks 11-5 in the regional championship
“That match had a lot of heart and built up my confidence for the championship match. I was ready,” Watts said.
The state trip will cap the senior season for Watts, who has broken through as one of the Pirates leaders.
Though he doesn’t know quite what to expect with the trip, he’s confident that he’ll stand on his own.
“When you go in there anything can happen,” Watts said. “I’m expecting to do very well. I’m not saying I’m going to go in there and win every matchup and pin them in the first period, but realistically, I feel like I have potential.”