LUMBERTON — The hottest sport that was played during the cold winter months in Robeson County was not on the hardwood with an orange ball.
As much as we’d like to think basketball’s accolades in the county were the highlight of the winter sports season, that recognition belongs to those on the wrestling mats, and that comes from a big-time basketball lover. This season saw Robeson County’s wrestling showcased at the conference, state and national level in both high school and college, and there is hardware to prove it.
Purnell Swett, St. Pauls and The University of North Carolina at Pembroke brought home conference championships. All three high schools combined to send 13 wrestlers to the state tournament and UNCP sent its largest group to nationals in three years, but that wasn’t the end of the road. Three high school and three college wrestlers placed in the top six at their ultimate tournaments.
The three high school state placers, Purnell Swett’s Rommie McNeill and Will Deese, and Lumberton’s Noah Taylor, competed among some of the best in the region every weekend in tournaments and then sometimes during the week in the tough Sandhills Athletic Conference. Yes, the conference that was known as a gauntlet to some during the football season is equally as tough in the winter for wrestling as well.
McNeill was named the conference’s Wrestler of the Year, and placed third at states, a year after coming in second as a rookie at the state tournament. Deese and Taylor both finished sixth.
The highlight for me covering wrestling this season was a trip up to the East regional semifinals and finals in Cary where the new kids on the block, Purnell Swett, made history in its first appearance in the state dual tournament. The Rams made it to the regional final against Cary, a well-established power, and held their own for much of the match in a raucous environment that felt more like an in-county basketball matchup.
While the Rams fell short, new ground was conquered, and should be attainable in the future.
That environment should be in Robeson County gyms in the future with the growth of the sport that even UNCP wrestling coach Othello “OT” Johnson sees coming with more and more local wrestlers finding spots on his roster.
I joked with Johnson at the NCHSAA state championships when I ran into him in the concourse of the Greensboro Coliseum and said that Robeson County is becoming a “wrestling hotbed.” He agreed and said the best is yet to come.
Eric Milks, Rodney Shepard and Nick Daggett kept the Braves tradition alive and well at nationals with All-American honors, and all three were big parts in helping the program capture its first Eastern College Athletic Conference regular-season title in its third season with the conference, but winning is no new tradition for UNCP.
That winning tradition is starting to seep through at the local level.
With the youth wrestling that is going on thanks in large part to local high school coaches’ — Nicky Barnes, Jamie Bell and Tony McMillan — initiative, and another big contribution from former UNCP coach P.J. Smith, wrestling in Robeson County has its best days yet to come after a season that was a stark contrast to how wrestling looked in the area from years past.
Jonathan Bym can be reached at 910-816-1977 or by email at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @Jonathan_Bym.