01/12/07 — Battle at Little Big Horn: Injury-riddled Warriors hope to defend title

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Battle at Little Big Horn: Injury-riddled Warriors hope to defend title

By Rudy Coggins
Published in Sports on January 12, 2007 2:26 PM

Stout, hard-nosed competition aptly describes the second installment of the Battle at Little Big Horn wrestling invitational, which takes place Saturday at Eastern Wayne.

The day-long, 16-team event includes eight dual-team playoff qualifiers from 2006 and nearly 30 grapplers ranked among their respective weight classes in the Super 32 Report published weekly by ncmat.com.

Eastern Wayne head coach Mike Brown expanded the tournament from 12 to 16 teams to increase the competition level. He expects five or more schools to contend for the team championship.

"New Bern is real strong this year," said Brown, whose team is the defending champion. "Jacksonville, Athens Drive and D.H. Conley are all good. It's a well-balanced tournament, and there is no one team that is going to come in Saturday and walk away (with the title)."

Brown isn't quite sure where his injury-riddled Warriors will finish. Brian Lincoln, the reigning 160-pound champion, is nursing a knee injury he re-aggravated before Tuesday's dual match with Wilson Beddingfield. Tyler Wicks, who placed third at 189 in last year's tournament, remains doubtful. Wicks hasn't seen any mat time since November.

Detori Mitchell injured his thumb in practice Wednesday and Brown is uncertain of his status for the weekend. Mitchell won the 145-pound division last season.

"This year has been injury-riddled for us," said Brown, who had eight medal winners in last year's event. "We've got a shot (at the title) if I can put those kids on the mat, and a lot also depends on how the draw goes. I told them it would be nice to win it again, but the competition is certainly tougher this year."

Three No. 1-ranked wrestlers are entered in the tournament, including two Little Big Horn champions from a year ago -- Jacksonville's Chris Teeter (103 pounds) and Tarboro 189-pounder Kirk Heffley. Eastern Wayne senior Brandon Johnson is No. 1 at 215 pounds among the state's 3-A grapplers, but finished second in last year's tournament.

Five weight classes appear to be particularly strong -- at least on paper.

A mere three percentage points separate the top four seeds in the heavyweight division. Tarboro's Eric Sutton (25-3) is back to defend his title and Southern Wayne's Josh Robinson, a returning state qualifier, has already lost to Sutton once this season. Sutton is ranked No. 2 among the state's 1-A/2-A grapplers, while Robinson is third in 3-A.

Each could see either Swansboro's Casey Collins (32-5) or Athens Drive's Jamie Hendrick (22-3) somewhere along the way. Neither Collins nor Hendrick, surprisingly, are ranked by the Super 32 Report.

The 112- and 119-pound divisions each have three state-ranked wrestlers. Included among the group are the Warriors' Chris Tesar, a state runner-up last season, and Southern Wayne senior Doogie Niemond. A returning state qualifier, Niemond ended up second to Tesar a year ago in the 112-pound title match.

However, the two Wayne County rivals are not expected to meet this weekend. Niemond remains in the 112-pound division, while Tesar is wrestling at 119.

"There is definitely going to be some good wrestling Saturday," said Brown.

First-round matches begin at 9:30 a.m. and admission is $6.