Clark, Red Devils have built blueprint to sustain championship run

Cody Dalton
Sports Editor

The Newton-Conover wrestling team competes for its fourth state title in the past five seasons on Saturday at 4 p.m. when it faces Carrboro at Northwood High School.

The path to the Red Devils’ run of state title success recently has been paved by a road of painful defeats.

Newton-Conover lost three-straight state dual finals from 2007-09, falling twice to Orange High School and once to McMichael High School.

The Red Devils failed to return to the dual team state championship until 2013, falling three times in the 2A West finals to Piedmont from 2010-12.

The final of those losses by NCHS to the Panthers came via the criteria tiebreaker.

“Those are haunting matches,” said Newton-Conover head wrestling coach Eddy Clark. “I’ve lost them every way you can imagine. There were times in my career where I didn’t know if we were ever going to get over the hump.”

Clark has been the head wrestling coach at Newton-Conover since 1999, and he’s seen the complete transformation of the program he took over nearly two decades ago.

“We started our program from the ground up,” Clark said. “We’ve put a lot of time into our youth kids and a lot of time into our middle school, developing that into what it’s become, which is a championship contender or winner every year. We have great youth coaches and great middle school coaches. The whole community has bought into what our program is all about.”

In 2007, Clark started the Newton-Conover youth wrestling program, which helped lay a foundation that would build towards the mat at Newton-Conover High School.

“I always thought we were doing the right things middle school wise, and I thought we were doing the right things for our guys up here at the high school,” Clark said. “I think what may have been the key to getting us over the hump was that youth model.”

Clark was inspired to start his youth program after listening to current Virginia Tech head wrestling coach Kevin Dresser speak at a clinic in 2006.

“(Dresser) told us the things that needed to be in place, and we kind of brought that down here, adapted that and tailored that to what we could make work,” Clark said. “It’s kind of been a good recipe. We appreciate coach Dresser and the Hokies for their information. He was a big help to me with our youth program.”

Since that time, the Red Devils have experienced a steady rise to the top of the prep ranks in North Carolina, winning their first dual team state championship in 2013, repeating in 2014 and winning their third title in four seasons last February.

This season, Newton-Conover has battled through injuries and several line up changes to reach its fourth state final in five seasons.

“When you have a good program, it’s really not piecing it together,” Clark said. “It’s the attrition, Some (wrestlers) will leave, and some step in. Part of being sustainable is that and part is not being devastated by injuries, by a sickness or different things.”

Leadership has also been a key this season for Newton-Conover on the mat.

The Red Devils are led by six senior starters — Ben Benson, Andy Henze, Jarad Sigmon, Damien Lowmen-Epps, Jacob Holt and William Gaither.

“They understand what it takes,” Clark said of his senior starters. “They understand that wrestling sometimes is not the most glamorous or easy sport to do. They understand that, and They’ve bought into that. They’ve embraced the grind and embraced the work. Kudos to them for getting where they are at.”

Despite trailing 23-3 to Chase in Thursday’s 2A West final at Lemon Gymnasium, Clark was impressed with the sheer will of his wrestlers and their ability to rally for the 31-29 victory.

“It’s hard to go out and let your family down and teammates down,” Clark said. “They understand the work that’s been put in by this whole encompassing program. They aren’t going to take that responsibility lightly. That’s why I think we were able to kind of fight through some of the things Thursday night in the Chase match. It’s just toughness and knowing they’ve sacrificed and suffered enough. It makes it hard to lose when you’ve invested that much.”

Standing in Newton-Conover’s way of another championship trophy Saturday is 2A East champion Carrboro (10-2), which defeated Mount Pleasant 31-30 in Thursday’s East final.

While Carrboro has only wrestled 12 total dual matches this season to Newton-Conover’s 43, Clark said those numbers are deceptive.

“Don’t let that fool you,” he said. “They’ve been to a lot of individual tournaments and tough tournaments. They’ve wrestled a great schedule. They’ve been to Pennsylvania and wrestled. They wrestled in The Tiger tournament, which is the premiere holiday tournament for North Carolina. We were there, too. When you look at their kid’s individual records, they are similar to ours in number. Dual-wise maybe they haven’t been in those pressure cooker-type duals that we try to put ourselves in sometimes. It’s two different schools of thought I guess. We’ll find out on Saturday. I hope we’re right. I hope what we’ve done is right.”