Coming off two of the most well-known high school tournaments in North Carolina, the Laney wrestling Bucs now look to finish strong in conference as they turn focus to regional and state competitions over the coming 45 days or so.
Laney has cruised to a 20-0 record in dual meets following a dominating 69-6 victory over Hoggard on Wednesday, and is currently ranked No. 5 among 4A schools. Back in his second full season as head coach, Dan Willis expects his group to be tuned in moving through the final weeks of preparation, looking to build from the experiences gained over the last few months of training.
“This year we have more depth than we’ve ever had,” said Willis. “We have a lot of young guys, still with over 40 kids on our team. I feel like we have some good leaders and a lot of experience. I ride them about their effort, but in reality they really do work hard. We never have to worry about how they’re doing in the classroom so it allows us to focus every day.”
During the holiday break, the Bucs placed fifth out of 38 teams at the WRAL Invitational in Raleigh, but struggled to make weight and injuries handed Laney a 16th place finish in the 66 team Holy Angels Invitational held at Bojangles Arena in Charlotte. The Bucs are using those road trips as a reminder each day to put themselves in position to succeed at the highest level come crunch time.
“We use those tournaments as kind of a measuring stick,” Willis added. “Now we know what we need to work on. We’ve been banged up and have some guys fighting sickness, but the depth matters. We’ve always had guys to plug in. It was a good time to see those two tournaments with about a month and a half left in the season and know where we’ve got to be. We’re backing off of what we’re learning, refining the stuff they already do and hoping to go into regionals in February fresh.”
Prior to the pair of road trips over the holidays, the Bucs grabbed dual wins at three different outings and fifth place at Union Pines Invitational. Laney also picked up a key 39-22 victory over West Brunswick earlier this season to put them in position to win another Mideastern Conference Championship after avenging last year’s loss to the Trojans.
A well-rounded group of standouts in Buctown are working to one up their performance, including Kevin Saravia, David Bostian and Alex Willis. The trio brings a lot of minutes logged as members of the varsity team, with championship experience under their belts. Bostian is off to a 25-4 record, with 14 pins as a senior. The three-time state qualifier is currently ranked No. 3 in North Carolina and eager to finish his high school career on a high note.
“The last few years have given me the mental discipline and work ethic to keep pushing,” said Bostian. “It’s been a rough road at times and I’m very thankful for the coaches who have helped me get there. This time has not only prepared me for when I get out of high school , but beyond school when I need to get a job in the real world.”
Bostian plans to attend Appalachian State University and is deciding between pre-dentistry or exercise science as a major. Following his undergrad, he has aspirations of going to dental school at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Saravia has collected the most accolades of the bunch thus far, with championships at Union Pines, WRAL and sixth place at last week’s invite in the Queen City. The third year varsity member is 27-4 overall, with 17 pins at 117-pounds.
Bostian and Austin Nalley have also tasted success as runners-up in the statewide invites and are striving for a better turnout down the stretch.
The day in and day out of a high school wrestler can be grueling at times, but staying disciplined with the eye on the prize has Laney in position to continue the programs long-time success.
“I think our team is pretty strong and that’s because we’re like family,” said Saravia. “We’re more of a family than a team and push each other. Conditioning is going to be the biggest thing and trying to get back to full health is our goal right now. This sport takes a lot out of you physically and mentally, but the last few years has given me a better idea of what you can expect.”
Freshman Sean Panas has also emerged as a threat in the 120-pound division and classmate Cael Willis is 21-4 in the 126-pound weight class.
Now in his second full season back in Buctown, Willis has been impressed with his team’s work ethic and believes they have the right stuff to qualify several wrestlers for the state meet.
Austin Soles (170), Hunter Starling (182), Jacob Cooper (195) and Troy Bowman (285) round out the 2016 senior class. Cooper claimed the 195-pound championship this year at Union Pines, while Bauman has gone 11-3 in the heavyweight division.
“Our standards are high and have some of the top guys in the state are on the same team,” said Bostian. “We’re becoming more of a family, working together. We’re conditioning, lifting, getting stronger. Everyone in here has high expectations.”
Coach Willis has a long history in the sport locally, getting involved on the mat back in 1985 and winning nine consecutive Mideastern Conference Championships from 1999-2009. He coached from 1995 to 2004 at Hoggard High School and from 2006 to 2009 at Laney.
Willis stepped aside after 2009 to focus on shaping his young family, but made his return to Laney as head coach in 2014 and now has his Wrestling Bucs in form as they put their attention on the championship season ahead.
“I’ve coached a lot of these kids since they were little,” said Willis. “It’s nice to be back at this level. It’s a little more intense. Coach Sewell fought hard to get this wrestling room at Laney. With our youth program [Port City Pirates] down the road, it’s a good situation.”