“We’re tired of taking second place in the ECAC, I can tell you that.”
O.T. Johnson, head coach of the UNCP wrestling team, is confident that his team has what it takes to make some noise in the Eastern College Athletic Conference this year.
However, they’ll have to do so with a slightly different set of leaders. With top performers like Blaze Shade and Mikey Thomas graduating after last season, multiple vacancies are up for grabs in UNCP’s starting lineup.
The team’s roster features 17 true freshmen and just two seniors. The squad’s youth will bring about some growing pains throughout the year, but Johnson has seen a variety of outcomes from preseason preparations.
“We have some good, we have some bad, we have some ugly,” Johnson said.
Much of that preparation has centered around the wrestlers dueling against each other. That’s exactly what they did on Oct. 18 at the program’s annual Black and Gold match, which allowed the Braves to compete in front of a live crowd.
Among the athletes taking part in the event were the team’s two seniors – Eric Milks and Joey DiMartino. Milks, a New Bern native, weighs in at 149 pounds. DiMartino came to Pembroke from Sicklerville, N.J., and weighs 184 pounds.
Both have already shown glimpses of the strong leadership qualities that Johnson expects them to have with the young team.
“Those guys have been vocal on their own without us having to chime in too often,” Johnson said.
Two former Braves, Shade and Juan Stimpson, joined the program joined the program as assistant coaches this season. Both had impressive runs at UNCP, and their experience has been helpful in terms of getting the team ready to compete at a high level.
“They bring experience, they bring credentials these guys can look at,” Johnson said about the duo. “It’s always great to have guys who were a part of the program, and part of a successful part of the program, that can come in. Both of those guys were part of 11th-place finishing teams in the country as athletes. As a young guy in the program, if you’re not reaching out to those guys, asking them for advice, you’re not exhausting all your resources.”
That is especially true for Shade’s younger Brother, Blaine, who is a freshman for the Braves this season.
“There’s some sibling rivalry there, which is good,” Johnson said. “I think Blaine wants to be Blaine, and you have to respect that. Blaine will never be Blaze, and Blaze will never be Blaine.”