by Staff Writer
by Cliff Mehrtens
Hough High wrestlers have their coach’s complete empathy.
Not so long ago, Tripp Rogers was in their shoes. He was an all-state wrestler three times at East Gaston High and won the N.C. 4A championship in the 112-pound division as a sophomore in 2001.
“I know what it’s like, and what it takes, to win the big match,” Rogers said. “I also know what it’s like to lose a big match.”
He endured the heartbreak of losing a state final, too, as a junior in 2002. It was a 5-3 loss in overtime. Any emotion, problem or experience a Hough wrestler may wonder about, well, they can easily tap into Rogers for guidance.
Rogers, who began molding the Hough wrestling program when the school opened two years ago, is making fast strides.
Four Hough wrestlers are ranked in the top 10 in their weight classifications in state Class 4A rankings compiled by retrorankings.com. Adam Nivens, a junior, is No. 8 in the 126-pound division. Jake Efird is No. 10 at 145 pounds, Palmer Maples is No. 5 at 160 pounds and Tanner Russ is No. 9 at 132 pounds.
“They all work hard and get along with each other,” Rogers said. “They push each other on the mat, and that’s good.”
Rogers, 26, doesn’t sit around telling his wrestlers what it’s like to be good. He put together a rigorous schedule that includes several Saturday tournaments. That means most of the Huskies will get three or four matches each weekend tournament against top competition.
Hough wrestlers have competed in the Jim Hayes Invitational, Al Kessie Invitational, WRAL Invitational in Raleigh, North Davidson High’s King of the Mat tournament, the North Gaston Invitational and Myers Park’s R.B. Sandiford Invitational.
That’s in addition to dual-team matches, where Hough has flourished. The Huskies are 9-0, and 3-0 in I-MECK 4A conference matches.
They’ve romped in the past two, crushing Hopewell, 63-13, on Jan. 3, and North Mecklenburg, 70-12, on Jan. 12.
Hough will wrestle at West Charlotte on Thursday, Jan. 19, in a conference match, and meet Providence and Rocky River in a tri-team match on Jan. 20.
Then come what will be the key conference matches – Jan. 25 at Mooresville and Jan. 26 at Lake Norman.
“The key will be buckling down and focusing, because the matches start to get tougher,” Rogers said. “They’ve been through tough matches. We just have to stay focused on what we have to do.”
Connor Brooks, a sophomore who wrestles in the 285-pound division, said the team unity creates an atmosphere where the individual Huskies aren’t solo acts.
“You’ve got to make sure you show up ready, not so much for yourself but for the team,” Brooks said. “If you lose, you don’t just feel bad for you. It feels bad that the team was counting on you, and you lost.”
About half of Hough’s wrestlers are on club teams that compete year-round. That helps gain experience, but doesn’t lock out wrestlers who don’t, like Brooks. He plays football in the fall. Other Huskies arrive as inexperienced freshmen.
That’s where Rogers’ touch comes in.
“He helps us a lot,” Brooks said. “He tells us he’s been there before and helps us out on that. He likes to push us hard. But he’s understanding. He doesn’t expect the new guys to go out there and win every match, but he does expect us to do our best.”
High-school wrestlers have two avenues to a potential championship. They can be part of the dual-team competition, where Hough wrestles an opponent in 14 different weight classes, or they can compete individually. Wrestlers qualify for the individual tournament through their season win-loss record and how they perform at the conference tournament.
“Our conference tournament is always fun, because there’s always upsets,” Rogers said. “It’s a wild, crazy event.”
Hough’s top wrestlers all have different strengths, Rogers said. His takes: Nivens is good at carrying. Russ is a hands-and-ankles guy. Maples is a polished hand-fighter. And Efird will give foes “six solid minutes, whether he’s up by 10 or down by 10. He doesn’t quit.”
The Huskies also have been getting solid performances from Edward Stokes (138 pounds), Christian York (195) and Hunter Owens (120).
Hough debuted last season by finishing fourth in the I-MECK 4A conference regular season and third in the conference tournament. Those are respectable for a first-year school, but the Huskies this season seem poised to improve both marks.
Rogers and the Huskies were lively during a Jan. 16 practice that began at 8 a.m., a day when school wasn’t in session (the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday).
The wrestlers were making jokes as they went through the early-morning warm-ups.
A few minutes into drills, Rogers dipped onto the mat and put a hold on Austin Newell to demonstrate a point. As the Huskies paired off for other drills, Rogers moved among groups to show different maneuvers and offer pointers.
“They’re a group of goofballs, fun and frustrating at the same time,” he said, with a laugh. “A typical group of high school guys, joking on each other and making fun of each other. But when it’s time to buckle down and go (work hard), they go.”