Hepler equates a grueling wrestling match to a game of chess; simultaneously engaging in hand-to-hand combat while trying to stay three to four moves ahead of your opponent.  Photo by Roger Doyle.

Hepler equates a grueling wrestling match to a game of chess; simultaneously engaging in hand-to-hand combat while trying to stay three to four moves ahead of your opponent. Photo by Roger Doyle.

THOMASVILLE - Trying to explain wrestling to anyone new to the sport often takes time and patience. That’s why trying to draw a comparison to the unde-feated 50-0 season that Thomasville High School junior Zane Hepler just pulled off seems down-right impossible. Hepler is the 2018 NCHSAA 2A 113-pound State Champion, a feat that is difficult enough to achieve on its own. Hepler has done it in a world-class fashion by wrestling 50 straight matches without a loss; that’s like getting into a fight with 50 people whose main objective is to knock you off the top of the mountain and never losing a single one of them. There are high school wrestlers who are considered successful and never reach 50 career wins, and Hepler has accomplished it in a single season. 

While playing football for the Thomasville Bull-dogs, Hepler’s coach saw his tremendous ath-leticism and told him he should go out for the wrestling team. Despite being recruited by the wrestling coach, Hepler quickly saw the chal-lenges of being a young newcomer to the sport. He posted a 0-2 varsity record, at the 106-pound weight class, his freshman year. Generally speak-ing, those aren’t numbers that turn heads or light any kind of fiery passion for a sport. That, however, was not the case for Hepler as he bore down in the offseason and competed in tournaments all around North Carolina as well as in Virginia, Washington and New Jersey. This led to a 34-13 clip and a trip to the NCHSAA State Championships his sophomore year. Hepler was eliminated from the 2017 State Championship tournament in the second round of consolation, and that was the last time he lost a high school wrestling match, to date. 

When asked about the key to such a successful career thus far, Hepler shared some interesting insight on his match preparation. 

“I have a pre-competition ritual: a time for nervousness, listening to hype music, simply saying to myself nobody can beat me,” said Hepler.  “I tell myself that I can do anything.” 

Important to Hepler is his philosophy, you must “practice harder than you wrestle.” The end result this high school season certainly shows the time Hepler has put into in his sport of choice to be the best he can be. Hepler is also a loyal member of a local wrestling club, The School of Hard Knocks, where he trains with Hall of Fame Coach Bobby Lloyd. 

Hepler offered some insight to a popular phrase in the wrestling community: “you’ve got to be mentally tough.” 

“It is important, while in the midst of a grueling wrestling match, to stay three to four moves ahead of your opponent,” said Hepler. “It’s as if I am playing a game of chess while simultaneously engaging in hand-to-hand combat.” 

“I just want to make states, just want to get there.” This is not a quote to be attributed to Hepler.  However, it is not at all uncommon to hear this phrase or something very similar to it from wrestlers in the weeks leading up to the state championships. There are droves of student athletes who genuinely believe they have arrived by merely earning a spot on the sixteen-man bracket for the state tournament. 

This season, for Hepler, that was the starting point. After winning the 2A Mideast Regionals in dominating fashion, Hepler arrived at Greensboro Coliseum with a 46-0 record. Fifty wins was still attainable with a loss, but at that point, keeping the zero intact was the goal. That meant he would reach the half-century mark. That meant he would reach the top of the podium. That meant he would be the state champion. Hepler’s first round seemed to be a continuation of his dominant performance at regionals when he pinned his opponent in the first period, one minute and thirty-four seconds into the match. On day two, Hepler wrestled all six minutes but posted a commanding 14-3 major decision over his opponent. In the semi-finals, a round that is generally daunting and nerve racking, the round that decides which two will wrestle for the title, Hepler posted another win by pin fall, this time at the three minute-thirty second mark. Now in the finals, Hepler was up against a returning state champion and senior, an opponent who knew his way around a state championship match. 

“I was finally feeling a bit nervous for a match,” said Hepler. “It did have an effect on my performance.” 

Hepler poses with his wall of impressive achievements.  Photo by Brad McNease. 

Hepler poses with his wall of impressive achievements. Photo by Brad McNease. 

But in a clear demonstration of “respect but never fear,” mindset, Hepler was able to pull of the 2A state championship win in the waning seconds of the match and he ended the season with a perfect 50-0 record. When asked if he thought the margin of victory would have been greater, had he not had the psychological hurdle of nerves to overcome; Hepler replied, “yes, I really do.” 
Neighboring states and national tournaments aren’t the only places Hepler plans for wrestling to take him in the future. He has a plan to attend and wrestle in college once he finishes his high school career. Hepler is not sure what his college major will be. He knows he has the rest of this school year and his whole senior year to think it over and to figure that out. He is certain though about wanting to continue to wrestle at the next level.

“I am looking at Appalachian State University as a possibility after graduation,” said Hepler. “ASU has an NCAA Division 1 wresting team and is well known for their recruitment of in-state talent.” 
Hepler has accomplished the ultimate goal that many high school athletes aspire to achieve.  The end result of all the hard work he has put into his sport has culminated into becoming a Thomasville Bulldog State Champion!  Anticipate chapters to be written on Hepler’s wrestling success in years to come.  His future in the sport should be a bright one.