West Carteret wrestling coach Kevin Smith has an experience-laden roster with three returning state tournament qualifiers. (Zack Nally photo)

MOREHEAD CITY — A state champion transfer and an experience-laden roster has the West Carteret wrestling team in prime position for the new season.

The Patriots are coming off a 2019-2020 season in which they placed fourth in the region, won the 3A Coastal Conference and finished 25-5 overall.

They had four state qualifiers last season, including returning seniors Christian Mezzaroba and Jacob Bennett, an eastern regional champion. The team has five returning seniors, including Josh Henderson, Bo Fearing and Jaiden Rittenhouse, as well as senior transfer River Carroll from Swansboro.

Carroll was the 3A classification’s 160-pound champion last season. He went 57-1 and also collected a regional title and a Coastal Conference crown.

“He’s a great addition. He’s a great kid,” West coach Kevin Smith said. “He has worked very hard to fit in with our team and culture. He’s done a terrific job with that, and his teammates have welcomed him with open arms. It was a seamless, easy transition, made easy by his attitude and effort.”

West comes into the season with a strong team presence, ranked by as the No. 3 dual meet team in the eastern region and No. 5 in the state. has the Patriots ranked No. 6 in the state as a tournament team.

The team is allowed 28 dual team meets during the regular season. There won’t be a dual-team state playoff this year, but Smith still worked hard to prepare his team with a rigorous schedule.

“This is probably the toughest dual meet schedule we’ve ever had,” Smith said. “I looked for the other high-ranked teams around us. Union Pines was ranked No. 1, Hoggard No. 2, Fike No. 5 and Havelock was No. 4 in the east. You add Croatan, New Bern, Chapel Hill, Corinth Holders, D.H. Conley, and that’s a pretty stout schedule.”

He added, “We’re pretty confident we’ll know exactly where we stand when we’re done with those teams.”

The tough dual team meets will be the only way for individual wrestlers to sharpen their skills since there will be no other regular season tournaments.

“It’s going to be tougher in the state tournament this season,” Smith said. “It’ll be a lot like when I wrestled many years ago. There won’t be any wrestle-backs, and brackets will be smaller, so there’s no room for error. If you lose, you’re out.”

The Patriots have a balanced lineup with most weight classes already penciled in. One of the top returners, Bennett, will wrestle at at 138 pounds. He finished 52-8 last season and placed sixth at the state tournament.

Henderson is back at 220 after going 50-7 last season, junior Hiroki Cruz is at 170 after finishing 37-9, Mezzaroba is back at 132 after going 30-14, Rittenhouse is back at 152 after going 37-18, and sophomore Isaac McPherson is back at 285 after going 20-29.

Others penciled in are freshman Jaden McBride at 106, sophomore Skyler Oxford at 113, Fearing at 120, sophomore John Watts at 126, junior Aaron Jeronimo at 160 and sophomore Joshua Knipe at 195.

Going from the offseason to the regular season has been a unique transition for Smith and the state’s other wrestling coaches. The season typically starts in November, but the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic pushed the season to the latest start possible.

“We hadn’t been on the mats since March of last year, and we were just allowed to get back on them in mid-April,” Smith said. “Most of my kids haven’t had wrestling shoes on in over a year. We’re going to get up to speed as fast as we can. Thankfully, a lot of people are in the same boat.”

The COVID-19 protocols will be similar to other sports this year, such as limited physical contact and mask-wearing on the sidelines. Wrestlers will not have to wear masks while actually wrestling, and mats must be sanitized after every dual meet.

The Patriots will open at home on Wednesday in a tri-meet with Northside-Jacksonville and D.H. Conley.

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