Since 2010 post-match scuffle, Watson’s worked to reinvent self
by Chris Hunt
The news came as a shock to Hopewell wrestler Nick Watson, like a vicious body-slam to the mat.
Your season is over.
Watson had worked so hard. He had a 21-2 record entering his regular-season finale against rival North Mecklenburg. A victory over the Vikings’ Latham York in the 215-pound match was supposed to be a confidence-builder before the 2010 I-MECK 4A conference tournament.
Watson was going to ride that momentum all the way to his second state tournament appearance. After that, anything was possible – maybe even realizing his dream of capturing a state championship.
Instead, Watson’s season ended that night, just moments after he pinned York.
Wrestling matches traditionally end with a referee raising the victor’s hand to the crowd. But a split-second altercation between Watson and York following their emotional bout made for an unusual ending. This time, the referee didn’t declare a winner; after Watson and York exchanged post match blows, the referee disqualified both wrestlers.
It only got worse for Watson after that.
Watson and York were suspended for the next four matches, as required by Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools athletic rules. That included the conference meet and the 4A Western Regional tournament. Missing regionals meant York and Watson were ineligible for the state meet, abruptly ending their junior seasons.
Watson didn’t know his season was over until days later, when he showed up to support his teammates at the I-MECK tournament. At the time, Watson expected to sit out the meet but assumed video of the match would show he acted in self-defense during the altercation – that his aggressive shove was meant to separate the two wrestlers and not retaliate. Surely, he thought, tournament officials would understand his intentions and allow him to wrestle at regionals or, at the very least, the state meet.
Watson was wrong.
He remembers sitting in his car parked outside the gym later that day after Hopewell coach Frank Smitwick broke the news to him. As his teammates wrestled inside, Watson said he sat alone in the car and cried.
That was the last time Watson would let the bad news get the best of him.
Days later, he committed himself to preparing for the 2010-11 season. He was determined to not let his senior season suffer a similar setback. His career, he promised himself, wouldn’t be defined by his heartbreaking junior year.
Watson went to work immediately.
Even though he wasn’t eligible for the postseason, he swallowed his pride and joined teammate and state qualifier Joe Acquarulo in workout sessions for local wrestlers preparing for the regional and state tournaments.
Watson then spent the rest of the spring and summer entering every off-season tournament and camp to which Smithwick could drive him. Watson even qualified and raised hundreds of dollars to compete with the Greensboro-based NC Panther Elite team in the AAU Wrestling Scholastic Duals in Florida. Watson finished 7-4 at that meet, but the experience against many of the nation’s top wrestlers was invaluable.
“I still wanted to get better,” said Watson. “I couldn’t go to states, but that didn’t mean I had to stop training. I guess my off-season started (after the I-MECK 4A tournament).”
The terrible ending to Watson’s 2009-10 campaign was the fuel for his redemption. Whether or not he felt his punishment was justified didn’t matter. Watson said he’d never put himself in position to let someone else decide the outcome of his senior season.
Since then, the senior has dominated the 215-pound division winning 28 of his 29 matches. Watson’s only loss was in his first event of the season against a heavyweight from Olympic High – a challenge he took on just days after his football season ended. He said he did it for the experience of wrestling someone 40 pounds heavier.
“I don’t regret the decision,” said Watson. “I keep my eyes on the big picture. Records aren’t that important to me because you can go 10-10 and still win a state championship.”
As of Jan. 19, Watson was ranked third in the 215-pound division by retrorankings.com, but he still plans to drop to 189 pounds before the conference meet, a common technique by wrestlers to gain an advantage.
Blessed with a unique combination of strength, speed and fearlessness, Watson has worked himself into a position to possibly wrestle in college. He’s already visited UNC-Pembroke and has received interest from Davidson College’s wrestling program.
“He’s one of the best technicians I’ve ever coached,” said Smithwick. “He’s always in the gym trying to learn new wrestling techniques. Sometimes I have to kick him out of the gym. He’s made the most of the opportunities available to wrestlers.”
Split second, long-lasting consequences
York remembers struggling to breathe during his exhausting match against Watson more than a year ago. York said Watson had a reputation for applying a scissors technique with his legs, squeezing his opponent in search of a pin. York said he was caught by that move close to five times in that match, including the final seconds. He said he was determined to battle to the end, even at the risk of losing consciousness.
York said he doesn’t remember how the match ended – by pin or default. Neither does Watson, for that matter. York said he simply recalls the frustration of defeat overwhelming him and, regretfully, punching Watson in the leg to remove the Titan’s vice-like grip.
In retaliation, Watson aggressively shoved York as he stood up. The wrestlers quickly exited the mat after the encounter, before the referee made his decision.
“I was frustrated because I couldn’t get out (of Watson’s scissor hold),” York said. “I thought I was going to pass out. The frustration built up in me, and I hit him to get him off me. Then I stormed off the mat mad.
“After we were disqualified, I was bawling because I was so upset,” York continued. “I regretted (the altercation) because it ended both our seasons when we both could have done really well in regionals and at states.”
To this day, Watson doesn’t speak with York, even though the Titan’s had several opportunities to do so at athletic events in the past year. They faced each other on the football field this past season. York, an all-conference nose tackle, often played offensive line against the Titans, crashing into Watson – who played linebacker – on many occasions.
Last month, Watson also defeated York in a wrestling rematch in the Mecklenburg County Tournament at Olympic High. Watson’s 17-1 major decision was cathartic. He remembers being nervous before facing York but refrained from confronting the Viking.
“I was focused and motivated to wrestle York again,” said Watson. “I knew I was going to win my division, but that match was on my mind all the time – how last year played out; how I lost my season.
“After I won, it felt good. The win was a big weight off my shoulders. I felt like I could put what happened last year behind me.”
Watson said it’s not that he remains bitter after a lost season, adding that he just prefers to move on with his life and leave the incident behind.
York and Watson could meet on the mat three more times this season – in the teams’ dual meet, the I-MECK tournament and regionals. But Watson doesn’t anticipate anything will change between the two wrestlers.
York said he’s tried to approach Watson with small talk, but to no avail. York said he isn’t bitter, however, noting that he understands Watson’s position. York also would like to put the past behind him and focus on productive endeavors.
“We haven’t talked much to each other,” said York. “I tried to say something but he just nods and doesn’t say anything back. I understand. He has every reason to be upset with me.”
Just like Watson, York has tried to learn from his mistakes. York said the confrontation that night taught him he didn’t need to take an overly aggressive mentality to be competitive. Last season, he said he’d rather die than let an opponent pin him, and that led to heated emotions he had trouble diffusing.
These days, York said he prefers to compete to the best of his abilities without feeling the need to toe the edge of losing his temper. He’s excited about what lies ahead. He’s enjoying another impressive wrestling season with a 34-5 record.
Thanks to York’s newfound perspective, this time he’s counting on finishing his season in the state tournament.
And so is Watson.