Thank you for being one of our most loyal readers. Please consider supporting community journalism by subscribing.
This story was corrected from an earlier version to indicate that Fike High senior Saulo Rodriguez is making his second trip to the NCHSAA state tournament, not first.
Somewhere, Mike Wickham is smiling.
The late Fike High wrestling coach would be elated that five Golden Demons qualified for the North Carolina High School Athletic Association 3-A tournament this coming weekend in Greensboro. In addition to junior Aaron Bancroft, who repeated as a champion Saturday at the NCHSAA 3-A East Regional tournament at Cleveland High, seniors Joseph Speight and Saulo Rodriguez, junior Jahmez Settles and sophomore Vincent Page will be going to Greensboro.
Bancroft, one of the top wrestlers in the state at any classification, will be aiming for a state championship, which would be the first ever for a Fike wrestler. The son of Fike assistant coach George Bancroft, he might be the No. 1 seed in the 3-A 160-pound weight class in Greensboro.
While Fike’s other four wrestlers may not reach the state final in their respective classifications, they have achieved a lot just by making it there.
“I’m so excited for these guys because Joseph, Jahmez, Vince and Saulo — they’re exceptional kids as far as their mannerisms,” said Fike head coach Bradley Watson. “I love who they are. I mean, kids are going to be kids but, at the same time, they’re just good-hearted kids. When I started coaching, I knew I would get connected to the kids but I didn’t know how much, how quickly. I’m just drawn in. I just love my guys and am excited to see them succeed that way.”
Watson wrestled at Fike but before Wickham was the coach. However, when Wickham’s ongoing bout with cancer made it apparent that he wouldn’t be able to lead the team last season, he reached out to Watson, who embraced the role. Coupled with George Bancroft, whose passion for wrestling is unsurpassed, Watson has been able to continue the job that Wickham, who died on Jan. 1, 2018, started when he took over a dormant Fike program in 2011 and turned it into a perennial 3-A Big East Conference contender that annually produced state tournament qualifiers.
“I’m not one to take credit because I have had so much help and I have such good guys, but I am proud to continue to build on that foundation that Mike started,” Watson said.
Nothing made Wickham happier than getting a kid interested in wrestling and seeing him improve on the mat and off. Speight and Rodriguez were two wrestlers who showed up without much experience and minimal talent but they both stuck with the sport and, through hard work and dedication, turned themselves into state qualifiers. Rodriguez made the state tournament in 2018 as a junior but Speight fell just short.
Neither of them are expected to win a state title, having finished third in their respective regional weight classes, nor will they likely continue to wrestle at the collegiate level. They’re just high school kids who had a coach who cared enough to spark and keep their interest in a sport and they did the rest. Now they will have lifelong memories and (excuse me while I wipe away a tear) this is what high school sports are all about.
Thanks to guys like Mike Wickham, Bradley Watson and George Bancroft, kids like Joseph Speight and Saulo Rodriguez can have a dream and then reach it.
MOST OUTSTANDING MOVE
Aaron Bancroft delivered one of the most powerful maneuvers of the 3-A East Regional when he was presented with the tournament’s most outstanding wrestler award for the second year in a row.
However, Bancroft decided that award should go to someone else. He presented to Jevanie Green, a student at North Brunswick High who was badly injured when he was hit by drunk driver after a Fourth of July fireworks display in Southport in 2015 . Green, who had to undergo extensive therapy after the accident that ended his athletic career, was at the regional tournament Saturday. Although he couldn’t recall his last name at the time, Bancroft remembered Green from their days wrestling in tournaments when they were in elementary and middle school.
“We weren’t really good friends, but I would see him at tournaments and we would talk and stuff,” Bancroft said. “When I got to the tournament and saw him, I thought I have to give him the MOW. This is for him.”
Green was astonished — and touched.
“He couldn’t believe it,” Bancroft said. “He was, like, ‘I can’t do this. Are you serious?’”
“It was a touching moment. George didn’t tell Aaron to do it. He just did it,” Watson said. “To me, that was one of the best victories of the night aside from the five guys (qualifying). It almost brought me to tears, man, when Aaron told me what he was really doing.”
BERNIE STOOD TALL IN ROCKY MOUNT
The sad news came Monday that former longtime Rocky Mount High teacher and athletic trainer Bernie Capps had passed away Sunday night.
For decades, Bernie was a sight on the sidelines at Gryphons games, unmistakable with his physically short stature but larger than life as a icon for the school’s athletic program. He retired in 2011 after 42 serving his alma mater. Bernie graduated from Rocky Mount Senior High in 1963, a first-hand witness to the school’s most glorious athletic year when the Blackbirds, led by the legendary Danny Talbott, won state championships in football, boys basketball and baseball.
Bernie graduated from Atlantic Christian (now Barton) College and, after two years teaching in Key West, Florida, returned to his hometown, where he stayed.
A 2003 inductee into the North Carolina Athletic Trainers Association, Bernie was a reliable asset to both Rocky Mount High and the greater community throughout his life.
I particularly enjoyed his calls to the Times office on football Friday nights, eager to share some final scores and get some for himself. Sadly, Bernie stopped calling the last few years, maybe because scoring updates were unnecessary because scores were readily available on Twitter.
Needless to say, Bernie will be missed and his contributions to his hometown and, particularly, his alma mater, should always be remembered fondly.