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The Dynasty Continues: Avery County High School Wins State Wrestling Championships

Avery’s 2023 Individual State Wrestling Champions wearing North Carolina High School Athletic Association championship blue shirts are from left-to-right: Cooper Foster (on shoulders), Tristan Adams, Cael Dunn, Grant Reece, Seth Blackledge and Benjamin Jordan. Also, pictured in the celebration from leftto-right are their fellow-Viking wrestlers Brandon Cabrera and Johnathon Gragg.

By Tim Gardner

Merriam-Webster describes a dynasty as a “succession of rulers of the same line of descent or a powerful group that maintains that position for a considerable time” and a sports dynasty as a “sports franchise which has a prolonged run of successful seasons.”

Dynasty aptly fits the Avery County High School Wrestling program in general and as a sports franchise in particular. Continue reading for evidence to back up the hefty claim.

The North Carolina High School Athletic Association State 1-A Wrestling Championship Tournaments could as aptly be called the Avery High Invitationals in recent years with the successes the Vikings have earned in them.

Avery captured both the dual-team and the team-tournament state titles in 2020, winning the
team tournament in 2021 when dual-team was not available due to the Coronavirus (COVID)
Pandemic and the dual-team and team titles again in 2022. Avery made it back to the 2023
season dual-team state championship, although the Vikings lost to Uwharrie Charter Academy
by a narrow 39-36 final.

Avery County High School attended the 2023 1-A Individual State Wrestling Tournament held at the Greensboro Coliseum in February, where the Vikings earned a fourth consecutive state team-tournament crown.

But they won the team-tournament title, which ended the 2022-23 season on the most colossal high. Avery had a record six individual state champions among the 14 weight classes on day three (February 18) of the 2023 1-A Individual State Wrestling Tournament held at the Greensboro Coliseum to propel the Vikings to a fourth consecutive state team-tournament crown.

Matthew Dunn, who has compiled a 111-13 record, while leading those teams to at least one state title in each of his four seasons as Avery’s head coach, said of his latest championship team: “This was an amazing and unexpected event. We were supposed to be down this season. having graduated eight seniors, six of whom were state finalists. Additionally, we had two number one ranked wrestlers in the state not even come out for wrestling this year. We had a lot of struggles early in the season, but were held together by an outstanding group of
leaders. We knew how good these wrestlers could be, but some just waited to the absolute
end of the year to show it. This has been an incredibly hard year for all of us, but our team
members worked harder than any group I have ever coached.”

Avery finished the tournament with 134.5 team points, seven better than second-place Robbinsville (127.5). Uwharrie Charter Academy came in third with 112 points. The rest of the tournament’s top ten teams were far behind the top three. Swain County compiled 56 points, edging Thomasville (55.5 points) for fourth place. Cherryville followed in sixth place with 45.5 points. Pamlico County was seventh, compiling 45 points. Rosewood finished eight with 42 points. Alleghany County came in ninth with 36 points, and Starmount was tenth with 34.5. Entering the championship round, Avery trailed Robbinsville by five points, before rallying to take the title.

Junior Benjamin Jordan won his second consecutive state title.

“I’m so proud to have been part of this group,” the coach added. “Our team members competing had to pull off a miracle to win this one (state championship), but somehow, they did it. This was the first time in history that any program has had six individual champions in one day, and we needed every single point to pull it out. We narrowly pulled it through in the last matches of the weekend.”

Head Coach Matthew Dunn and Assistant Coach Brandon Burleson watch from the sidelines during the tournament.

Avery is fortunate to have a feeder program — the Dogtown Wrestling Club — that teaches aspiring wrestlers in the county at early ages until they reach the high school level about the sport’s fundamentals, while helping them develop the skills needed to be successful wrestlers.

Dunn declared: “It’s amazing how humbling victory can be. On the ride home (from the state championship) all you think about is how grateful you are to all those that made it possible and how much you owe others for what was just achieved. Our coaching staff and the group that started these wrestlers at the Dogtown Wrestling Club deserve all the credit.

“It (Dogtown Wrestling Club) is the key to our successes. The club allows us to start kids young
and develop them consistently over time. The staff that started Dogtown had a vision of what Avery wrestling could become and they are the ones that should be credited with Avery’s success.”

Fayetteville Seventy-First High set the previous record for most individual state champions in a single season with five during the 1996-97 season. Avery and Parkland High later tied that record. But Avery broke it this season with the not only amazing, but astounding six wrestlers earning state championships. Those wrestlers, their individual season record, names of their opponents and their records and how and/or when they won the match were:

152-Pound Class State Champion Tristan Adams.

Tristan Adams (36-2) repeated as state champion at 152 pounds, taking an 8-4 decision over Cherryville’s Chase Miller (42-6)

“Tristan had his best performance of the season at the state championships,” Dunn said. “Tristan never let the pressure get to him as he laughed and stayed super relaxed during the entire event. He is a senior and finishes as a two-time state champion with more than 100 career wins.”

Of his and Avery’s state titles, Adams said: “I don’t even know how to describe the feeling, but to say that both are amazing. It seems like every year we break a record or make some kind of
history, but we’ve been wanting to break the record for most state individual champions for a long time. It’s sad that it’s my last Avery team, but I’m most happy because it’s one more state
record and one more state championship. I’m so thankful I did it with my team, which is also my family and my brothers.”

Adams declared that Avery has various attributes that sets it apart from other wrestling programs. “No other teams have wrestlers who scraps like ours, and no other wrestlers are as tough as ours. I’m so proud that our teams have been an absolute power house for four straight seasons. We’ve had many victories and had a few heartbreaks. But when you see Avery wrestle, you witness the tremendous work and drive our teams put into it. Our lives are doing what we do best, and that is wrestling.”

Grant Reece (42-3) won by a 4-3 decision over Ryan Mann (56-2) of North East Carolina Prep in the 132-pound class to capture his second consecutive state title.

132-Pound Class State Champion Grant Reece.
Grant Reece strives to get a position of advantage over his opponent.

“Grant won his second state title in the absolute last seconds of the match, almost causing simultaneous heart attacks for our entire aging coaching staff,” Dunn shared. “Grant is one of our team captains and finishes the season with a 42-3 record.”

When asked about his thoughts about the Avery program’s perennial success and about how difficult it was repeating as an individual state champion, Reece replied: “It’s a great feeling to bring another state title back to Avery County after our team had faced lots of adversity this season and everyone counted us out. So, it was nice to make history with six champs. And winning an individual state title means a lot to me as it is proof that all of our hard work was not in vain and shows me that through hard work your goals can be achieved. For me, it was harder to defend my state title because after my first, I got on the radar as everyone wants to beat the returning champ. I found it easier to win a state title my sophomore year because there was far less pressure on me.”

106-Pound Class State Champion Cooper Foster.

Cooper Foster (52-0) also won by decision (1-0) at 106 pounds against Uwharrie Charter’s Ethan Hines (46-7).

Sophomore Cooper Foster finished the season with a perfect 52-0 record.

Dunn said: “Cooper finishes the season with a perfect 52-0 record and he is only a sophomore. His father, Kevin, is the founder and operator of the Dogtown Wrestling Club…also known as the Godfather and architect of Avery Wrestling.”

Concerning the grand feat of being one of six Vikings to capture an individual state title to help propel them to state team championship, Foster said: “It’s so thrilling, especially after we have tied the record multiple times in the past few years. I’m just glad that I was part of it after watching it not happen when I wasn’t even in high school yet.”

Foster listed the wrestling club, coaching expertise and a consistent and an ultra-strong work ethic by he and his fellow-wrestlers as the top factors in Avery building its dynasty, stating:
“The reason we are so successful is because of the Dogtown Wrestling Club. It is what grew our amazing wrestling program from 2012 to now. We’ve also had amazing coaches like Matt Dunn, Kevin Foster, Waylon Griffith, Hank Hardin, Dominic Parisi, Brandon Burleson and Hunter Starling. They really helped grow all our wrestlers to become both individual and team state champions. And myself and all our other wrestlers consistently work our tails off in every practice and match, which has produced our success too.”

State champions Seth Blackledge and Tristan Adams pose together with their wrestling brackets.
Seth Blackledge dominates his rival during a match.
195-Pound Class State Champion Seth Blackledge.

Seth Blackledge (50-2) won at 195 pounds with a first-period pin (1:33) against Uwharrie Charter’s Jadon Maness (25-6) for his second state crown.

“Seth was the rock of our wrestling program this season,” Dunn stated. “Seth won his second state title and made his third finals appearance. He had three first period pins in the state finals — a very dominant performance.”

Blackledge maintained that an integral part of Avery’s success this season is due to the team’s unity.

“I believe that the brotherhood that we established this year was a key to our success,” he said. “In the past our team has been close, but it’s always kind of been a ‘fend for yourself’ atmosphere. Wrestling is an individual sport, yes, but to feel the support from your team just pushes you to wrestle even harder. I sincerely believe that this enabled us to win this title and break this record as a true team.”

Blackledge added that he and the entire Avery are delighted to be state team champions as he
is to be an individual state champion, while bringing such major positive recognition to the

120-Pound Class State Champion Benjamin Jordan

“It feels awesome; we feel very supported by our community, and we always have,” he said. “When we got back from Greensboro, we saw everyone’s faces light up who knew we were state champions. Most knew we had won previous state titles too. And we were greeted with ‘congratulations’ and ‘we’re proud of you.’ Knowing that we are well-known in our communities and that people are proud of us keeps us working hard and makes us want to make our community proud. I think it’s awesome that my brothers (teammates) and I have been a key part of expanding Avery County’s reputation and recognition.”

Benjamin Jordan (46-3) defeated Pamlico County’s Marcus Tyson (49-2) by pinfall (3:45) in the 120-pound match.

“Benjamin is a junior and his dominance is displayed by the fact that he barely made it out of the first period for the entire regional and state tournament to win his second consecutive state title,” Dunn noted.

170-Pound Class State Champion Cael Dunn.

Jordan remarked about Avery’s teams and his individual success: “I think that our continued success as a team just shows that we put in the most work and that we have one of the best (wrestling practice) rooms in the state. And as individuals, I think our success has been mostly attributed to having good partners and coaches to practice and train with. And it feels great to get the recognition we deserve and to see all of our hard work pay off.”

Cael Dunn (56-1), freshman son of the Vikings head coach, won by decision (1-0) in the 170- pound match over defending state champion Grayson Roberts (50-5) of Uwharrie Charter.

Coach Dunn said of Cael: “Cael finishes the year with a 56-1 record. He defeated a returning state champion and senior in the finals and was our sixth champ of the day, breaking the previous record. Cael has had a great season and finishes the season as the top ranked freshman in the state, according to Rank Wrestling, among all weight classes and all classifications (1-A, 2-A, 3-A and 4-A).”

Head Coach Matthew Dunn hugs his son, Cael Dunn, in celebration.

Cael Dunn commented about how it feels to be an individual state champion: “Winning a state title has been huge for me! It has always been a dream, and this year turned into sort of a vision. I wanted to win obviously, but I wanted to see that the hard work had paid off. I had to learn this year that you have to love the journey more than the destination. It is about seeing how much better I can make myself, winning is a byproduct. I wanted to bring a title back for my family and continue a legacy, my father’s and my own. The greatest part of it was seeing each of my teammates and family after winning. So many people had helped me get there, and getting to see them with a gold medal around my neck made it that much better!”

He then expressed his thoughts about being part of a team earning a state crown and helping the Vikings set a new record for individual state champions. “Being able to continue the greatness that the past teams started feels great,” he said “I have been so excited to be a part of this (program) ever since I saw Avery win the first state championship four years ago. I am so glad to be able to help my team in keeping a legacy going and breaking a record!”

Mason Bently before a takedown in wrestling.

In the tournament’s consolation semifinals, Avery’s Mason Bentley (41-14) lost by decision (9-5) to Eastern Randolph’s Adrian Lopez (35-7) at 126 pounds.

“Mason did not win a state title, but he did a great job at the tournament and scored vital points for our team,” Coach Dunn said.

And in its consolation first round, Mount Airy’s Alex Cox (24-9) won by a 5-2 decision at 138 pounds over Avery’s Staley Griffith (17-22).

Head Coach Matthew Dunn received the North Carolina High School Wrestling 1A Coach of the Year award.

Coach Dunn said of Griffith: “Staley actually had not wrestled for several years. (He) came to the team and really struggled early in the season. He was able to persevere the hard times and make it to the state tournament … A huge success for him and evidence of great improvements this year.”

Besides winning either the dual-team or team-tournament state championships, or both, the past four seasons, and having six state individual champions crowned this year, the Vikings have many more milestone achievements in their elite wrestling history. Those include winning Western Highlands Conference dual-team and team-tournaments the past five seasons (2019-2023), having numerous other state placers and individual state champions, All Americans and the 1997 National Prep Individual Wrestling Champion in John Mark Bentley, currently the head wrestling coach at Appalachian State University.

The Avery High Wrestling team members pose with their state team championship trophy and individual champions wearing their champion medallions and t-shirts and showing off completed state tournament brackets they won in their respective weight classes. From left-to-right: (Top Row) Mason Bentley, Benjamin Jordan, Seth Blackledge, Cael Dunn, Grant Reece, Cooper Foster and Assistant Coach and Dogtown Wrestling Club Founder and Operator Kevin Foster; (Middle Row) Hunter Starling, Head Coach Matthew Dunn, Assistant Coach Brandon Burleson and Brandon Cabrera; and (Bottom) Tristan Adams.

And as a component of Avery’s consistent success, the word “rebuild” has become foreign to
its program. It’s been proven there is no need for such during the last several years regardless
of personnel lost from a previous season. Instead, the word “reload” is the norm for Avery from
season-to-season, as aided by the Dogtown Wrestling Club, Coach Dunn keeps a continuous
flow of outstanding wrestlers — freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors — who continue to
hone their talents and skills under his guidance. And they keep producing stellar individual
accomplishments, while continuing Avery’s team dominance in the NCHSAA’s 1-A ranks as the
program to beat and that other schools seek to emulate. And neither doesn’t seem likely to
change any season soon.

All photos courtesy of Avery County High School Wrestling.