Western Harnett wrestler Will Lewis reflects on his journey to back-to-back state titles following Saturday's perfect run through the 3A championship tournament.
GIBSONVILLE — A sweeping bow in front of the statewide audience crammed inside Eastern Guilford’s gym, punctuated the final scene of Will Lewis’ storied prep wrestling career.
The preceding acts were marred by disappointing interludes.
Two losses at regionals freshman year. A deflating loss during the state semifinals as a sophomore.
But when the referee stopped Lewis’ 132-pound final Saturday, as part of this year’s North Carolina High School Athletic Association Individual Wrestling 3A State Championships, it signaled his second gold medal at the event in as many years and emboldened his claim as Western Harnett’s most decorated athlete.
Moving to Lillington from Pennsylvania before the start of his freshman season, Lewis immediately set out to surpass the program’s only other two-time individual state champ.
“When we moved, I heard of Robert LeDuc’s records and wanted to at least win two state championships, or even one more than him,” he said of the former Eagles standout who won titles in 2000 and 2001.
“It’s an honor and big accomplishment to be considered one of the (program’s) best.”
Lewis recalls the regional losses as a freshman and how they sparked the drive that’s propelled him to a school-record career win total, capped with this year’s 27-0 mark.
After the early defeats, he remembers shifting his study habits to include countless hours of YouTube videos, memorizing the moves of his favorite high school and college wrestlers. Having already seen his brother Fred Lewis earn the 3A runner-up state title at 120 for Western in 2019, Will Lewis says the sibling sparring sessions are what helped him most improve.
Last year as a junior, he claimed a 48-2 overall record and won his first state title with a dominating first-round pin.
Eagles wrestling coach John O’Keefe credits Lewis’ rare dedication to the sport, noting how he turned down ordinary teenage habits like video games and hanging with friends in favor of working out.
“He just turned up the notch. He set his goals — it didn’t matter if it was a meet or practice, he approached them all the same,” O’Keefe said, also adding that he doesn’t recall Lewis missing a day of practice since his freshman year.
“There was no days off for him. Sometimes, he’d even run on the weekends.”
Lewis’ now-legendary practice routines are what he feels made the difference the past two seasons, harnessing an innate ability to push through fatigue.
“Having guys beating up on you through the second half of the practice gets you prepared for those third periods and state championships,” he said.
Look no further than last week as a prime example as Lewis sported a small gash on his forehead during Saturday’s tournament, a battle scar he says was leftover from an intense string of tune-ups.
The grueling rehearsals paid dividends as Lewis scored a pair of pins and two wins by tech fall, including the finals match against Statesville’s Antonio Caldwell. It was a “fitting” close to his final high school season, a dominating campaign in which Lewis didn’t surrender a single point to an opponent.
It’s this display of excellence that has O’Keefe hopeful for his younger Eagles wrestlers, as they prepare to create their own storylines.
“You get that picture of what it takes to be a state champion — where the baseball player, soccer player, tennis player or football player that’s not in the practice room with (Lewis) doesn’t see that work ethic,” O’Keefe said.
As for Lewis, a brand new tale is set to unfold when he takes the mat for a budding Campbell University program that’s won three straight conference championships.
“I just don’t want to disappoint anybody. I’m gonna keep working and hopefully put on a show,” Lewis said.
Donnell Coley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 910-230-2040.