Thank you for being one of our most loyal readers. Please consider supporting community journalism by subscribing.
Aaron Bancroft never had a chance. He was destined to become a state champion wrestler by the time he had learned to crawl.
His father, George — perhaps the world’s most passionate individual when it comes to amateur wrestling — has been coaching the sport around these parts for more than 40 years. The elder Bancroft, currently the assistant coach under Fike head coach Bradley Watson, has been a coach at all three Wilson high schools and first started out as the Charles L. Coon Junior High coach in the mid-1970s.
Wrestling is a way of life for George Bancroft, who started what would become the Backyard Wrestling Club. Through that, Bancroft has taught the sport to hundreds, if not thousands of young men over the years. His older son, George Jr., was a three-time state champion in Florida after Bancroft moved his family there in the early 2000s.
It didn’t take George Sr. long to get Aaron interested in wrestling.
“Seventeen months!” George crowed when asked how old Aaron was when he first started wrestling. “I’ve got a photo of him of him in his diaper!”
While Bancroft may have only been partly kidding, he was serious when he said Aaron’s first competition was at the age of 5.
“By the time he was 5, he could climb the rope three times to the top of the gym in Florida,” George assured.
By the time the Bancrofts returned to North Carolina when Aaron was in elementary school, it was only a matter of time before he was following in his brother’s footsteps as a state champion. In July 2015 just after seventh grade, Aaron finished second in the ASICS/USA Wrestling Kids Greco Nationals in the 128-pound Schoolboy division in Wisconsin and has competed annually in state and national freestyle and Greco tournaments.
But winning a state championship, his father suggested, might be Aaron’s biggest accomplishment personally.
“Being a high school state champion is a big thing because it brings about community recognition and recognition to the high school,” George said.
He should know. He’s helped coach five of the six NCHSAA champions from Wilson.
George Bancroft wrestled in high school in New Bern but the New York native came to Wilson to be on the Atlantic Christian (now Barton) College track and field team. After starting the Wilson Grapplers and Cindermen Association, Bancroft, who also helped coach the Fike track teams and such stars as Greg Artis, Eloise McCain and Charles King, decided he could only coach wrestling on the side.
That proved to be a great decision for wrestling in Wilson. Bancroft helped Melvin Braswell start the wrestling program at Beddingfield when it opened in 1978-79. Bruins senior John Bynum became Wilson’s first state champion in 1981 when he finished a 32-0 season by winning the NCHSAA 148-pound title and helped the Bruins finish third as a team. Carl Williams of Beddingfield was the state runner-up at 108 pounds. This was during the open era of high school wrestling in North Carolina — no classifications and no dual-team playoffs.
The previous year, Bynum went 29-0 before losing in the 145-pound state championship match. Vince Bynum placed third at 119 pounds for the Bruins, who finished eighth.
But Beddingfield was just getting started. In 1982, Paul Smith won the first of his two state championships for the Bruins.
That same year, Hunt’s Johnny Coleman was the 158-pound state champion — the only one from Wilson who didn’t train under Bancroft.
The early ‘80s were truly the golden era of wrestling in Wilson but, a decade later, the magic returned, but at Hunt. With Bancroft assisting Warriors head coach Gurnest Brown, who was on Bancroft’s first teams at Coon nearly two decades earlier, Hunt senior Sheldon Vick became the second unbeaten state champion from Wilson in 1993, winning the 4-A 140-pound title with a 30-0 record as the Warriors finished fourth as a team. A year later, Jamel Daniels became Hunt’s third state champion. In 1995, Daniels suffered his only loss — a one-point decision — in the state semifinals as he was denied joining Smith as the county’s only two-time champions and starting a 25-year title drought that lasted until Saturday.
While it’s unclear if Wilson ever had a high school wrestling team prior to Fike’s first edition in 1964-65, Coon High was the home of the state high school boxing championship team in 1932, the second year the tournament was held. Wilson was the runner-up in boxing in 1931, 1933 and 1934. Presumably, boxing was discontinued as a high school sport sometime later in the decade.
The first Fike wrestling team was coached by Joe Robinson, a Cyclones football assistant coach on Henry Trevathan’s first staff. Fike had a different coach each of the next four years, each time a different football assistant coach — Wally Dunn, Dave Everett, Gus Andrews and Gary Whitman.
Dunn produced the first state tournament qualifiers in 1966: Bill Boles, Joe Carr and Eric Moore.
Tim Ellenburger, who hired Bancroft to coach at Coon, took over the Fike program in the early 1970s and nearly had the school’s first state champion. Ricky Johnston was unbeaten at 119 pounds going into the state semifinals in 1973 but a controversial referee’s decision cost Johnston the match and he settled for third place.
Charles Jones would wrestle in a state final for Fike in 2001, one of several state runners-up from Wilson after Daniels won the state title in 1994, including Hunt’s Ronnie Williams in 1997 and Noell Carillo in 2012; Beddingfield’s Isaiah Bookman in 2014 and Aaron Bancroft’s Fike teammate Rae’Sae Settles in 2017.
And now that Aaron Bancroft has ended that long drought, you can believe that he’s already planning on adding his name to Smith’s as a two-time state champ from Wilson.
A big part of Aaron’s journey was believing that he was a state champion before he won the title. It’s what George has preached for years that, along with the wealth of wrestling knowledge that he imparts on kids, is a big reason he’s had so much success in Wilson.
“They have to visualize and believe that that’s going to happen,” George said. “If you can get a kid to that point, it’s just a matter of time before that becomes a reality. That’s what we’re teaching in our wrestling room.”