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Seniors power wrestling team to regionals

By Jay Spivey
For the Clemmons Courier

Coach Jason Hooker is nearing the end of his fourth season as head coach of the West Forsyth wrestling team.

With all the success he has had with the Titans, much of it has come because of the foundation that was built by the five seniors on the team — Joe Burns, Collin Coulson, Claudio Pandolfi, Tucker Arnold, and Jacob Zaitawi.

All five wrestlers for West Forsyth (17-9 overall, 4-1 Central Piedmont 4-A, as well as the other nine, each qualified for this past Tuesday’s NCHSAA Class 4-A Midwest Regional at Glenn. Those that qualify will also get to compete in the NCHSAA Class 4-A state championship next Saturday, which is also at Glenn.

According to Hooker, there would’ve been 12 seniors, but for various reasons, these five have remained.

“I think these guys of how — we implement the character over winning type situation,” he said. “The guys, they’ve got to do the right things.”

And do the right things, they have. West Forsyth’s lone conference loss was to Davie County.

“We were freshmen. Jason Hooker came in as our wrestling coach. He’s been our coach for all four years,” said Arnold, who wrestles at 160 pounds. “The first two years were a pretty big adjustment for him, coming into a new school. But our junior year, he pretty well got into his groove. And we’re about keeping the mindset and practice keeping positive, and keep outworking our opponents.”

Hooker took over for Maurice Atwood, who helped guide the Titans to state-championship title in dual team the previous two seasons. But Hooker kept the train rolling for the Titans in his first season. The Titans finished 25-10 overall and reached the state championship in Greensboro against Cary. The Imps defeated Titans 38-32 that day.

“Being a freshman, it was crazy just to see how big wrestling was here in North Carolina,” Arnold said. “As a freshman, you’re pretty young. You’re used to middle school, and it was kind of a surreal experience.”

Even with the loss to Cary the current seniors at West Forsyth feel it was a learning experience.

“I think just being able to compete on the level helped all of us with our outlook on our competition,” Arnold said. “You know, being in the finals our freshman year, it really just helped us realize that we could compete at that level.”

But to get to the level the Titans are now, they had to take a small step backward. They finished 11-9 in 2019 after losing 57-19 to Mooresville. They bounced back last year and defeated conference-rival Glenn 34-24 in the regional semifinals at home, and then faced Cornelius Hough that night in the regional final for a chance to face Raleigh Cardinal Gibbons the following week for the state dual-team championship. Hough won 37-34, but West Forsyth finished the season 17-6.

“I was like, ‘Dang, imagine if we’d won instead of like…,'” said Pandolfi, who wrestles at 152 pounds. “It would’ve been a great experience.”

Zaitawi, who wrestles at 182 pounds, initially was a two-sport athlete at West Forsyth, competing in both football and wrestling. He changed his approach his freshman season when the Titans reached the state dual-team championship.

“I’ve been wrestling since I was a freshman,” he said. “And I got involved with wrestling because my family — my family did wrestling. A bunch of my family members do wrestling, and they all told me to get into wrestling. I was like, ‘Yeah, sure, I’ll try it.’

“So my freshman year after I got done with football, I went straight into the wrestling season. And I was going into freshman year, I was like, no idea I was going to be interested in wrestling. I just wanted to try it out.”

Another of the current seniors who felt into wrestling is is Coulson, who wrestles at 138 pounds. Coulson is originally from Jamaica and moved here his freshman year. He also played football, track and field, and soccer before he became involved with wrestling. He saw his friend, Anthony Beltran, wrestling and things fell into place his freshman year at tryouts.

“So, I came and Coach Hooker saw me said, ‘Hey, you’re really good. You should get involved.’ I’m like, ‘OK.'”

Moving from to Jamaica to here, as well as getting to the different style of play in his chosen sports, was tough. Coulson will attend N.C. A&T in the fall and plans on majoring in psychology to become a teacher or counselor. He would also like to walk on the track-and-field team.

“So, I started coming to practice more, and I’m here now,” Coulson said.

Each of the seniors has their own story to tell about how they got into wrestling.

“It has been a weird year,” said Burns, who wrestles at 106 pounds. “It’s the not the same as it was last year, but our team has worked through the new changes. And we’ve been more strong than we ever have like in the past.”

It could’ve been an even bigger class of seniors, but COVID put a wrench into that. No matter what, the five seniors have stuck together like brothers.

“I’ve seen that a lot, just some of the comments they’ve made to each other,” Hooker said. “They try to hold each other up instead of break each other down. So, it’s been good.

“You know, some of the kids that quit, or didn’t wrestle, or whatever, we might’ve been better off.”

In addition to dealing with the attrition because of COVID each wrestler and the coaching staff had to navigate through the unknown. It wasn’t even until just before wrestling season started, which started much later this normal this school season because of COVID-19 protocols, whether there’d even be a season. They did get a season, and despite finishing in late June, they’ve been able to get through it. One change is that there won’t be a dual-team tournament this season.

“Most of the other sports teams got their regulations for all of their COVID protocol stuff two months in advance,” said Arnold, who plans walking on as a wrestler at Appalachian State. “So, it was still a toss-up. So, we had a lot of kids that worked really hard to stay in decent shape, and coming into this season where they could be competitive, which was nice. But it was definitely strange not knowing whether or not we were going to get a senior season.”

Zaitawi, who forfeited after the reaching the regional quarterfinals last year because of dislocated elbow and dislocated it again in the state tournament, went a step further.

“This year, it’s kind of weird being in wrestling season during summer,” he said. “It’s very weird. It’s a different experience, but I’m still busting my tail like usual. That hasn’t changed.”

Through all of the strife, the Titans continued to persevere.

“Out of last year’s roster, that got to end of the season, we had 58 guys left. And out of those 58 guys 44 of them are not wrestling right now through either graduation early, quit school, ineligible, or just decided not to wrestle this year,” Hooker said. “So, it’s just been a mess.

“We had a tough schedule before we knew about eligibility, and here we are.”

As the season progressed, the Titans have prospered.

“It was awesome just knowing that we were going to get to put a cap on all four years that we’ve wrestled in high school was a good feeling, for sure,” Arnold said.

The seniors all see part of the reason why the West Forsyth wrestling team has fared so well.

“(Hooker’s) pretty much like another father figure, I guess,” said Pandolfi, who will attend Guilford Tech with hopes of transferring to Johnson & Wales.

Burns hasn’t decided where he’s going to college yet, but he plans on majoring in computer science with a concentration in computer engineering.

“I feel like coach being new my first year we kind of like learned as a team like with our coach,” Burns said. “And I feel like we really built a strong team, and like a strong bond off of that, because we had to build a team off of what he had when he came here…But I feel like at this point we have like a strong team bond now.”

The guidance that it’s taken to build a team and program isn’t easy, There are a lot of moving parts, and those bricks are definitely paying dividends.

“They’ve done well, and overcome a lot of adversity,” Hooker said. “And like this year was like none other for all the teams with COVID. It’s been a trial for us all. These guy, the ones that have stuck, have done what they need to do.”