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Leopards turn Carolina Invitational into their personal lair

Posted: January 25, 2011 10:31 a.m.
Updated: January 26, 2011 5:00 a.m.
Photo courtesy of Carolina Sports Inc./

THE LUGOFF-ELGIN MIDDLE SCHOOL Leopards won the Carolina Invitational for the sixth time in the last eight years, with their most recent of those coming this past Saturday in Lexington. Shown in the team picture are, bottom row, from left: Grayson Clyburn, Chase Miller, Corey Bledsoe, Cameron Johnson, Chip Goforth, Katie Bowen, Hans Jacob, Jacob Gainey, Chad Blizzard, Dillon Edgin and Phillip Sullivan. The second row is made up of Blair Cearley, Ryan Miller, Chris Cain, Tyler Williams, Luke Shrader, Zane Nayfeh, Michael Hailey, Mikayla Drost, Graham Connell, Austin Teague and Nick Ranges. The third row includes Coach Justin Freeman, John McCusker, John Meldrum, Zach Anderson, Seth Ham, Dakota Jones, Zach Stalker, Connor Tully, Heather Roberts and Head Coach Ted Monroe. Shown on the back row are Lorenzo Simon, Colin Teague, Andrew Mills, Charles McCray, Justin Croft, Wes Wagner, Jason Upchurch, Michael Bertram and Nick Payne. Missing at the time in which the team photo was taken were Coach Bryan Plyler, Damian Gardner, Brandon Noel, Derrick Lewis and Quade Scott.

Several years ago, Ted Monroe was having a conversation with a high school coach from the Upstate whose team had just won a state championship in football.

The coach told the Lugoff-Elgin Middle School wrestling coach that not everything was a snap en route to the state title, as the group was not the easiest squad which he had ever coached.

When someone poses that same question to Monroeabout the 2010-11 Leopards’ wrestling team, he will give a far different answer. And, it will not be just because L-E won Saturday’s Carolina Invitational, the unofficial state middle school wrestling championship, at Lexington High School.

In fact, Monroe said that even if his charges had not blitzed the field, his take on his young men and women would not have changed one bit.

"I’m not just saying this because they were good and we won the tournament," Monroe said of his team, "but this might have been the most fun that I’ve ever had coaching a group of kids. They made me want to come to practice every day. They were just unbelievable to work with."

On Saturday, L-EMS roared to its sixth championship in the event in the past eight years by blitzing past runner-up Fort Mill by better than 60 points with host Lexington coming in third out of more than 70 schools which took part in the one-day tournament. The Leopards, who were third in this tournament a year ago, won the Carolina Invitational from 2004 through 2007 and again, in 2009.

"We dominated," Monroe said of his team’s performance on Saturday, which came after a 20-0 record in dual matches. "Our kids exceeded all my expectations. They felt that they could go up there and win that tournament and that they could dominate it.

"We’ve had some dominant teams here in the past, but we’ve never had one have as dominating a performance on that one day as this team had on Saturday. We just ran away with the thing, which was our goal and was what we wanted to do and, by gosh, that’s what we did."

The Leopards, through a series of state-wide qualifiers, had 16 wrestlers earn their way to Lexington, a anumber which stood at 14 Saturday, due to one wrestler being injured with another having to attend a family obligation. Lexington led the entry list with 18 qualifiers, a number which was reduced to 16 Saturday due to injury.

The two-man difference against rival Lexington, Monroe felt, was not too big an obstacle for his team to overcome.

"We knew that our quality was probably better than their quantity," he said. "But Lexington caught some bad breaks on Saturday. They are a very good team."

Hoping to get five wrestlers into the quarterfinals, L-EMS placed nine with six of those moving into the semifinals as the Leopards started to pile up the points.

L-E had just one champion in Brandon Noel, who capped a 25-1 season (25-0 vs. in-state competition), by winning the 100-pound division. Luke Shrader (26-3) would finish runner-up at 80 pounds.

Six L-EMS grapplers finished in third place, that group included 90-pounder Zane Nayfeh (17-5) and 140-pounders Quade Scott (19-4) and Michael Bertram (25-2), who could not wrestle each other due to the event’s five-match rule. The same rule came into play for 160-pound teammates Colin Teague (20-3) and Wes Wagner (27-5) while 185-pound Lorenzo Simon took third in his weight division.

"Shrader really stepped up for us," Monroe said. "He was down 9-1 in the semis against a kid from Eastside, who has been wrestling since he was five or six years old, and came back to win that match. Luke has only wrestled for us for a full season after being injured early last year.

"And, I thought Zane Nayfeh would win one or two matches for us on Saturday. He’s a very technical wrestler. Some people he wrestles may have more to work with than he does, but Zane has the bigger heart. The same goes for Lorenzo Simon, who makes the most out of what he has."

Monroe said that "the cream rose to the top" on Saturday when talking about his team, which he said was better than the one which he brought to Lexington for this tourney last year. He said the same was true as the Leopards prepared for this season.

"Coming in," he said, "we knew that we were better than we were last year or, at least, the potential to be better this year was there. But it didn’t take long for me to realize that this team has the makings of something special."

And with seven state qualifiers returning as eighth-graders next season, the Leopards could be staring at a repeat. Given the group’s desire and work ethic, they could well be the team to beat next winter. At dinner that night, on the way home, Monroe said several of his wrestlers asked when AAU wrestling practice started.

"When you really want to do something," Monroe said of the attitude of his wrestlers, "it leads you to doing it."

Monroe estimated that his team, which includes some 60 boys, accounts for about 30 percent of the eligible males in the seventh- and eighth-grades at L-EMS. The popularity of the program has not only helped Monroe, but translates to success at the high school level.

Thanks, in large part, to the wrestlers who have moved up to the high school program, Lugoff-Elgin currently sits second in the state’s 4A ranks.

When it comes time to start his own season, Monroe said he does not have to scour the halls and beg young prospective team members to come out for his squad. The championships do most of the talking for him.

"This sport recruits itself here," Monroe said. "And, when we have kids who are ‘iffy’ about wrestling, we try to get them to stick with it.

"We have a good thing going on here; we have something special going on. And, as you can tell, I’m very proud of all of our kids."

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