High-school wrestling has a long history of success in Western North Carolina, with three different schools and several individuals bringing home state titles over each of the past four years.
And that tradition of winning continues this season as several top teams ready for the playoffs in both dual team and individual wrestling next month.
Undefeated North Henderson (15-0), coming off a big win against perennial 3A power and 2016 state champion Enka (20-5), is on track to snap the Jets’ run of 14 straight conference titles as the leader in the Western Mountain Athletic Conference race.
Robbinsville looks strong again in defense of its 1A state title and hasn’t lost any Smoky Mountain Conference matches, and Western Highlands Conference 2A/1A power Mitchell is always a threat after back-to-back state 1A championships in 2014-15.
After coach Rex Wells – who won a state title at Brevard in 1985 – built a strong program at Enka, Mark Harris took over the Jets and has created a dynasty.
“I think Enka is the standard bearer around here, because Mark has had good teams for so long,” said North Henderson coach Keang Heang Uy, whose teams have finished second and third in the state the past two years.
Harris said a strong local youth wrestling program has helped grow the sport.
“We have a very good youth model in place, something we didn’t have 15 or 20 years ago,” he said. “It’s a very strong league that encompasses pretty much all of WNC, and in Hominy Valley I have 40 or 50 kids coming through there.
“That’s helped a lot of high-school teams get better.”
One of the products of that model has become one of the best WNC has ever produced.
Enka’s Phil Daub won a state title as a freshman (55-1) at 106 pounds, moved up two classes and
finished 58-5 and second in the state. Then last season he moved up two more classes to 138 pounds, posted a 63-3 mark and placed third.
This year, at 152 pounds, he was 35-0 going into a meet last weekend. Those 211 wins in the most all-time in WNC, a mark he set earlier this season and continues to grow.
He’s a special kid who’s put together an amazing career,” said Harris, who in addition to the state championship has placed teams in the state’s top five several times. He also won two state titles as a coach in the Raleigh area.
Daub and his family moved from the Erwin school district several years ago, in part so he could work with Harris.
“Coach Harris and my dad have been such influences in my life and in my wrestling,” he said.
“Coach Harris is not your average coach. He is focused on how good a young man you can be – social life, grades, not just wrestling.”
He admits the WNC record for most wins was a goal and hopes to earn enough victories in his senior year to put it out of reach for some time.
“It was a goal of mine and I think it’s a big deal,” Daub said. “I hope it stands for a long time.”
North Henderson has come so close in recent seasons, winning 26 dual matches two years ago and 33 last season. Both seasons North Henderson was eliminated in the postseason by Piedmont, which won the state title last year.
In the individual tournament, the Knights finished second in the state – only two points behind state champion Enka in 2016 - and placed third last year, just 3 1/2 points behind Piedmont.
“The last couple of years we’ve been that team that’s been close but not quite good enough,” said Uy. “Our team realized that we can compete at the state level, and now it’s a matter of getting those few extra points that could be the difference.”
“North Henderson is a very good team, just loaded with talent,” said Harris.
Junior Josh Blatt, with a 133-7 career mark in his third year and with a pair of individual titles already earned, leads a deep North Henderson team.
“He’s such a sold wrestler, and he’s made the people around him better,” said Uy. “He works rally hard at the craft, a real student of the sport.”
Paul Searcy is a senior who is undefeated, and juniors Joshua Feliz (126 pounds) and Morgan King (152) are also having strong seasons, as is Anthony Johnson at 170 pounds.
“We’re all working really hard to win a state championship,” said Blatt, who won titles as an individual at 106 and 113 pounds and has posted a 24-3 record competing in the 120-pound class this season.
“Every day in practice is a dogfight, and that has helped us bond by going so hard.”
According to the N.C. High School Athletic Association record book, only eight wresters have won four state titles, and Avery County’s JohnMark Bentley (1993-97) is the only WNC wrestler to accomplish that.
Former North Henderson wrestler Mitchel Langford (2012-14) won three state titles and just missed four straight, and Blatt said going for four is an individual goal.
“Mitchel came up just short, he had a bad case of the flu and lost his last match in the state final,” said Blatt. “I want to be the leader and all-around person he was, and to try and beat him and be among the select few who have won four in N.C. is definitely a goal.”
With the playoffs coming up, Uy said beating Enka gives his team even more confidence.
“We won head to head against Enka (last week), and they have a very good team. That was a big part of winning the conference, was to get by Enka. They are one of the premier programs around here, so that helped us a lot.
“The state title is definitely a goal. The 3A class is very tough, but we feel like we can compete.”
Robbinsville coach Todd Odom believes his squad, led by Kade Millsaps (132 pounds), Payne Anderson (152 pounds) and Isaac Wilkinson (170 pounds) can defend its 1A title.
“We can be very competitive, and I think we have enough talent in the room to go after another state title,” Odom said.
“Mitchell and Swain County are going to be tough, but wrestling around here is always going to be real good.”