ST. PAULS — If only for his friend, St. Pauls high school wrestler Michael Freeman knew he had to make it to state his senior year.
A friend of the late Tavarius Hall, a state placer with the Bulldogs who passed away during a conditioning workout at Scotland High in 2012, Freeman was on the receiving end of encouragement before his passing.
“We would wrestle all the time and he was like ‘You’re going to go to state before you get out of high school,’” Freeman said. “So I had to go to state.”
Freeman, a 220-pounder, made the most out his last chance at the 2A Mideast regional tournament. He entered as a seven-seed but wrestled his way to third place and is one of two Bulldogs that will be competing at the state championship meet, which starts tonight in Greensboro.
He’ll be joined by 126-pound junior Zared Hurley, marking the first time that the school is sending multiple wrestlers.
“I’m glad to see our cycle growing. It went from one (qualifier) each of the last three years to now we have two,” said St. Pauls coach Matt Anglin.
It also marked progress for Freeman, who has been wrestling since his freshman year and gone to regionals all four years.
He’s missed state by two points each of the last two years and finally got over the hump when he upset Elijah Whitsett, the fourth seed out of North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, with a 7-6 decision to make it to the third-place match.
The deciding point came as a tiebreaker because the two were tied at the end of the third overtime, Anglin said. Freeman scored first, giving him the point.
“It’s rare for him. Sometimes he’s more of a defensive wrestler, so it paid off for him,” Anglin said.
Hurley, a junior, is in his first year wrestling for St. Pauls. He moved to the area from Indiana over the summer.
Having been wrestling since the sixth grade, Anglin said Hurley has come in strong.
“He’s just got that mat awareness, so he’s done really well,” Anglin said. “He may even get a chance to place at state.”
Hurley said the route to state is more direct than his former state, where multiple rounds of the playoffs were required to make it.
Two of Hurley’s three wins came by pin, the final by injury default.
His only roadblock at regionals was Carrboro’s Stephen Dreher, who went on to win the regional championship.
The route to state was slightly different than normal for the St. Pauls, which the last small school in the county with a wrestling team. Administration had considered cutting the program last spring until a group of supporters arranged enough funding to keep the program going.
With a lack of 2A schools nearby, the majority of the Bulldogs’ schedule was 3A and 4A teams. The only regional opponents they crossed paths with were Clinton and Durham School of the Arts, Anglin said, and even that was on a limited basis..
He said the format was both good and bad for the team. Because of the high levels of competition, Anglin said some records didn’t reflect certain wrestlers’ abilities. It led to lower seeds and tougher competition in the first round for younger wrestlers. A weather-shortened schedule caused first round losses to be eliminations.
That said, he felt the team’s best wrestlers were better off getting such a high level of competition.
“Bottom line, our top end guys were more prepared as a result of it,” Anglin said. “Like Mike and Zarad, they’ve been through some tough matches, they came in lower seeds because they wrestled bigger programs. They probably would have come in a higher seed if they’d wrestled these teams all year, so it looks worse on the front end but on the back end they come out ahead.”
Anglin didn’t want to make any predictions on how his wrestlers would do, but Freeman said they know it will be tough. Both he and Hurley are third seeds and will wrestle second seeds in the first round.
“It’s going to be tough matches as soon as we enter,” Freeman said.
Hurley just wants to give himself a foundation to build off of.
“I’m hoping to place this year, somewhere in the rankings, and take first next year,” Hurley said.