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Since he became Fike High’s wrestling coach in 2011, Mike Wickham has tirelessly worked to promote the sport not only at Fike but throughout Wilson County as well.
He instituted the County Vs. County Challenge, pitting the three Wilson schools — Beddingfield, Fike and Hunt — against three from a nearby county in his first season and, in 2014, started the Demon Duals, a round-robin dual-team tournament.
The Demon Duals will observe its fourth incarnation Saturday morning in the Fike gym with Hunt, C.B. Aycock, Southern Nash, defending champion Cleveland, Clayton, North Pitt, Nash Central and Southern Wayne participating but, for the first time, Wickham won’t be present.
Instead he’ll be following from a place that none of his wrestlers and countless friends and colleagues hoped he would be.
Wickham’s battle with prostate cancer intensified over the past month and on his 63rd birthday Tuesday, he was admitted to Kitty Askins Hospice Center in Goldsboro. While hospice care is a tough hold from which to escape, Wickham refuses to concede anything.
His mind still sharp despite the disease ravaging his body and his voice as clear and upbeat as ever, Wickham declared during a telephone interview Friday afternoon: “I haven’t given up any hope yet but we’re going to just take it a day at a time and see what comes up.”
For now, he’s just focused on his team — which will be directed by volunteer assistant coaches George Bancroft and former Fike wrestlers Bradley Watson and Randall Herring — using the Duals for the purpose it was intended: To get experience and to get better.
“I want them to gain experience, obviously,” Wickham said. “We’re going to try to move some kids around and try to get everyone a match or two.”
THREE STATE QUALIFIERS BACK
Wickham has made clear his desire to coach Fike’s first state champion wrestler, which he came very close to doing last February when Rae’Sae Settles lost 9-4 in the North Carolina High School Athletic Association 3-A championship at 132 pounds. While Settles has graduated, Wickham pointed to three current Golden Demons who have the potential to make school history as the first state champion — senior Blake Edwards, senior Linton Holmes and sophomore Aaron Bancroft. All three reached the state tourney last season and Bancroft ended up fifth in the state at 145 pounds.
“i think all three of them can be there. They’ve all got the experience and I think they all have a good mindset,” Wickham said.
Holmes was a muay thai kickboxing champion who was fairly inexperienced at wrestling when he entered Fike as a freshman while Bancroft is the son of Fike assistant coach George Bancroft, a passionate veteran teacher of the sport who has been training his son since he was old enough to walk.
“Linton is a phenom. He has athletic ability that is off the charts,” Wickham said. “Aaron’s got all the tools: the experience, the savvy. … He’s got a little bit of a target on his back.”
Joseph Speight and Henry Escamilla just missed making the state tournament last season and will factor prominently in whatever success Fike enjoys this season. Promising freshman Vincent Page has stepped into the 132-pound spot vacated by Settles, whose younger brother, Jahmez, now a sophomore, is also part of the lineup along with Taylor Gay, who Wickham hailed for his improvement over the summer; Saulo Rodriguez, Roby Wood and Garrett Weaver, among others.
The Demons launched their season with dominant wins over Bunn and North Lenoir in a doubleheader at Hunt on Tuesday.
Wickham proclaimed Cleveland as the favorite in the 2017 Demon Duals but was pleased to note that Hunt also beat Bunn and North Lenoir this week. As always, Wickham is happy to see wrestling flourish at all county programs.
“It just tickles me for them to have 22 kids on the mat this time of year is just great,” he said.
Wickham credited Bancroft’s Backyard Wrestling Club, a year-round program, for helping area grapplers gain a foothold in state and national competitions.
“When we used to go to the state tournament, the western kids would almost laugh at us,” Wickham said. “Now they can see that we’re holding our own. Now we can pretty much wrestle kids from all over the country and while we don’t dominate, we’re in it.”
PASSION FOR WRESTLING
Wickham wrestled and played football and baseball in high school in New York and, while he concedes that baseball is still his favorite sport, wrestling became his passion — along with his love for Ohio State football.
Wickham wrestled for two years in college at Cortland State in New York. He coached high school wrestling for a year in New York before moving to North Carolina to be closer to his then girlfriend in graduate school at UNC in Chapel Hill.
Wickham, who has worked at Furniture Liquidators in Wilson, helped start the wrestling program at North Johnston, serving as Panthers assistant coach for two years before taking over as head coach for four years. He also started keep stats for the Panthers football team when Tom Nelson was head coach and, when Nelson came over to Fike in before the 2011 season, Wickham came along with him.
Fike had just been through a succession of wrestling coaches and Nelson helped Wickham get the job. He vowed that would be the end of one-and-done wrestling coaches at Fike, which won just three matches the season before he was hired.
“When I’m here, I’m here,” he told the Times in 2011. “And I don’t intend to leave.”
Rest assured that even though Mike Wickham won’t be physically present for Saturday’s Demons Duals, his presence will be undeniable.