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KENLY — When North Johnston senior Justin Richardson gets on the wrestling mat, it’s as if he’s suddenly in his own world.
Those words, which come directly from head coach Jeff Knittle, explain the intense focus that has led the wrestler to his own spot among an elite group of wrestlers in the history of the program.
“Justin is a leader, not so much verbal, but by example. As much as he likes to talk off the mat, he loves to lead by example on the mat, so during practice he’ll encourage everybody to continue to push each other,” Knittle said. “But at the same time he’s also so focused, there’s a lot of times when you feel like he’s in his own world. That’s because he’s so focused on making himself better.”
On Saturday, the 152-pound wrestler became the first North Johnston wrestler since 2013 to amass 100 career wins, achieving the mark after taking down Wilmington New Hanover’s Jackson Cuba by 13-6 decision in the 152-pound first-place match of Southern Wayne’s Saint Slam.
Richardson, who also plays soccer and golf for the Panthers, was hoping for a pin in the bout. In the end, it didn’t matter because he’d already dominated. But the gravity of what the accomplishment meant still hasn’t completely sunk in for him, even days later.
“It’s something that I’m still surprised about to this day because here at North Johnston, it hasn’t happened in (six) years or so,” Richardson said of reaching the mark on Tuesday during practice. “It’s something I’ve never seen someone do while I’ve been wrestling as a teammate. One of my teammates has never done it and I’m in shock about it still.”
Richardson becomes just the ninth wrestler in program history to reach the mark, setting a bar for a host of teammates behind him that no one set for him during his younger days as a wrestler.
Freshman Michael Linko is one of them. Linko has been watching Richardson this season and paying attention to the way he has worked to earn his spot in the 100-win club. The 126-pound wrestler said he usually loses to his older teammate when the two spar in practice, but each time he does, he learns something that can improve his skills.
Now, he’s hoping that the achievement can teach him what it takes to reach the mark himself.
“It’s good and I hope that I could eventually reach it because it’s a pretty cool thing to achieve,” Linko said. “It makes me push harder and make me want to be in that position.”
For his own part, Linko is having his own stellar season for the Panthers, posting a 31-9 record through the Saint Slam. By the end of his ninth grade season, he has a chance become the first freshman to tally 40 wins in program history, which would be a good start to reaching his ultimate goal of following behind Richardson.
“That’s making me push harder every tournament and every match, so I can hit that and make a record,” Linko said.
Like Linko, Richardson started taking wrestling more seriously as a freshman after watching older teammates succeed. Richardson first tried the sport to be around his older brother, JoJo, who was a senior at the time.
After his ninth-grade season, Richardson started club wrestling and turned his attention to loftier goals in the sport. But he never considered he’d reach triple-digit wins — even as his skills improved the longer he was on the mat.
“It was a big goal of mine for a long time and it was something that I thought I’d never reach,” said Richardson, who has a 32-7 record this season. “It just made me realize that I have some other goals that I thought were out of reach that I need to start working towards.”
The two wrestlers, the younger and older, have set similar sights for the rest of their seasons. Both have their eyes at qualifying for the North Carolina High School Athletic Association championship tournament and could join an even smaller club of performers at North Johnston to place in that tournament.
“My goal is honestly, a place at states,” Richardson said. “I want to get on the podium. I think that’s something everybody strives for.”
Richardson, who has considering wrestling in college and wants to study architecture or design, has the potential to capture 115-plus wins this season, which would move the senior to fourth all-time in victories at North Johnston. In the wrestling room at North Johnston, where Richardson practices every day, he works hard and sweats below the names of the eight wrestlers who came before him, who each have their own plaque with their own career win totals listed below their names.
Richardson has already earned his own plaque to join the rest, but the rest of this season will decide where he fits among them.
North Johnston legend James Napier has by far the most wins with 174, followed by Dyllan Creech with 148 and Eric A. Joyner with 136 victories. Richardson likely can’t close the gap on those three, but Knittle thinks he can pass Matt Evans, who sits at that coveted 115 mark.
With six events left on the season, the potential NCHSAA championships aside, Richardson is near other Panthers in the low 100s — Hunter Stephenson (111 wins), Daniel Munoz (107 wins), Jacob Lewis (106 wins) and Michael Webster (103), the other four Panthers to reach 100.
But regardless if he can get to fourth all-time, Richardson has already earned his position in the school record books, proving to be a consistent wrestler who worked hard over four years to end the triple-digit drought.
“He’s dedicated. To reach 100 wins in anything, you have to stay dedicated to your sport and the craft,” Knittle said. “You’ll never be complacent. I know he started off doing just regular school wrestling, but then he got into club wrestling and worked on his craft. That shows his dedication that he had to not just accept where he’s at, but want to be better.”