LUMBERTON — Justin Kelly barely missed out on placing last year at the NCHSAA state wrestling championships, and that close call has fueled him during his senior season at Lumberton.
“I get to prove to myself that I actually should be on the podium. I should’ve been last year,” Kelly said. “It really hurt a lot. I wasn’t supposed to lose that match, and I ended up losing it. It’s been in my mind, in my head all season long that I have to be there.”
Kelly sports a 45-14 record this season for the Pirates at 113 pounds after finishing second at the 4A Mideast Regionals last weekend, and Lumberton coach Jamie Bell has seen a determined senior leading the state placers into this week’s NCHSAA state championships.
“He lost in the blood round last year and that kicked him out of the tournament from placing,” Bell said. “He’s came back, wrestled hard and done everything the right way. We are going to go and try again.”
Kelly leads a group of six Robeson County wrestlers that will open the state tournament in the Greensboro Coliseum on Thursday and is the only state qualifier from last season. Teammates Jon Floyd, Kenson Sinclair and Darionte McLaurin qualified for the Pirates.
“It’s a lot of hard work and dedication and it’s coming together with the system that we’ve built,” Bell said. “Anything can happen at states. I expect them to do well. I expect them to wrestle hard and let the chips fall where they may.”
St. Pauls’ Ethan Roberts and Fairmont’s Derrick Baker also are making first-time appearances at states. Kelly, Roberts and Baker each finished second at regionals. Wrestling for 2A and 4A starts on Thursday evening.
After missing last season due to injury, Roberts has been a leader for the Bulldogs, and has been slightly surprised by his success.
“It’s a humbling privilege because not everybody gets a chance,” Roberts said. “I didn’t expect to make it this far, but I never gave up and I stayed humble and hungry to achieve my goal.
“I’ve been grinding even more harder. More focus and more technique and more conditioning training because when you get to states, there’s no telling what could happen.”
Roberts opens the 285-pound class state tournament against Millbrook’s Will Saby.
“He really worked really hard, especially in the last month or so, getting better at his skills and learning what we are trying to teach to get the wins and qualify,” St. Pauls coach Tony McMillan said. “He’s here now. Now he’s just got to keep wrestling the way he’s been wrestling the last few weeks. He’s turned it up a notch.”
Floyd and Kelly both are making their final appearance in the high school wrestling tournament, and for Floyd, this is new territory in his first state appearance.
“It feels great to me. It’s a different experience for me,” Floyd said. “I just need to do everything that I’ve worked on in practice and stuff. I have to get the job done.”
Floyd opens the 4A 120-pound championship against Alton Pratt from North Johnston.
Sinclair and McLaurin are two juniors that have worked year-round since the end of the season to get themselves in this situation.
“I’m just ready to go. I’ve worked too hard not to show out at the state tournament,” Sinclair said. “What encouraged me was not making it last year. I went into the offseason, joined the national team and started putting in work and I’ve seen this year that my work showed that I worked hard this summer. I’m going to continue to work hard going into this state tournament.
“End up on the podium. That’s all I want. I have to fight every match hard and prove that I belong at the state tournament.”
Sinclair’s opens at 145 pounds against Justin Sanders from Hough and McLaurin’s first-round draw at 170 pounds is Carson Floyd from Lake Norman.
“This is what we’ve been training for since my freshman year. I’m here now and it’s time for me to show out and show them what I’ve been grinding so hard for,” McLaurin said. “I’m trying to go out there and turn some heads and show them what I got. To show them that I’ve got it and I can be first place and knock everybody out.”
The trio from Lumberton first-timers all have drawn wisdom from Kelly behind a veteran in the wrestling room with experience at this level.
“That’s why I’m where I’m at right now. I train with Justin everyday,” Floyd said of Kelly. “Without him, there wouldn’t be none of this. Last year, I didn’t finish the season and ever since I started back, I’ve been doing good.”
“The way he push, the way he grinds, it just motivates me to grind harder,” McLaurin said.
“He’s a great leader and I just follow his lead,” Sinclair added. “Whatever he do, I do.”
After seasons of being a wrestler giving practice to state qualifiers and finally getting to be one of the wrestlers preparing for states a year ago, Kelly knows what his experience means for the newcomers. Kelly’s first-round opponent is Jacob Woodburn from Page.
“I’ve got two of my best buddies going to states and they can make some noise,” Kelly said. “That’s what we’ve got to do.”
Fairmont’s Baker is 38-3 and he begins the state tournament at 182 against Croatan’s Dakota Gray.