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First-year Darton coach Hicks leads Cavaliers into nationals

Darton State College star 125-pounder Jamel Sharp is 25-1 overall this season and seeded No. 1 in his weight class in the NJCAA national tournament, which begins today in Des Moines, Iowa. (john.millikan@albanyherald.com)

Darton State College star 125-pounder Jamel Sharp is 25-1 overall this season and seeded No. 1 in his weight class in the NJCAA national tournament, which begins today in Des Moines, Iowa. (john.millikan@albanyherald.com)

ALBANY — Darton's Henry Floyd was preparing for life after wrestling.

Then on a June day last summer as he was driving home from a job interview for a catering company in Orlando, Fla., Floyd got the call that changed everything.

“I answered the phone, and he said, 'Hey, this is coach (James) Hicks,’ ” Floyd said. “We were all hearing rumors that Darton was going to cut the wrestling program. I think (Hicks) could hear the excitement in my voice when I found out who he was.”

Hicks became the fourth Cavs wrestling coach in the last three years when he joined the program in June, and in the past eight months he has turned Darton into an NJCAA force.

Floyd knows all about the turnaround.

The sophomore, who is one of five Darton wrestlers competing in this weekend's NJCAA national tournament in Des Moines, Iowa, has gone through four different coaches in his two years in the Cavs program but says Hicks has provided some stability and guided the team to one of its most successful seasons in history.

“Without (Hicks), I don't know where this program would be,” Floyd said. “We are ready to go up to Iowa and surprise some people.”

The first round of the two-day national tournament begins today, and after finishing a program-best third in the Feb. 9 NJCAA Eastern District/National Qualifier, the Cavs have plenty of momentum heading into the Big Dance, where they are looking for their first individual or team title.

“The rest of the teams at the (national qualifier) didn't expect much from us,” Hicks said, “but we were getting compliments from everyone by the end of the tournament. They were saying that our guys were doing well and that they didn't see this coming. To get five guys through in the first year with the short amount of time we had to recruit guys, I was really satisfied.”

Floyd, the only sophomore making the trip to Iowa, wrestles in the heavyweight division and is joined by Jamel Sharp (125 pounds), Brandon Owens (133), Braxton Owens (141) and Benjamin Richards (197).

Sharp is the No. 1 seed in his division, enters with a national-best 25-1 record and hasn't lost a match since wrestling against Division I Campbell University in November.

“Sharp has a legit shot of winning the national tournament,” Hicks said. “He is very quick, athletic and is good in a lot of situations. A lot of guys can't keep up with him. He has been wrestling longer than a lot of guys, so his technique is good.”

Sharp will wrestle Hugh Nawn of Gloucester County (N.J.) College in today's opener, and if he wins he will face Seth Nehls from Colby (Kan.) Community College in the second round.

“I'm going to have to just go up there and wrestle the way I have been wrestling all year,” said Sharp, who wrestled at Valdosta High School last year. “I'm going to have to get after them the way we get after each other in the (practice) room, and hopefully the national championship will be there.”

Twins Brandon and Braxton Owens finished second and third, respectively, in the national qualifier, while Richards came in third and Floyd was fourth.

Brandon Owens will wrestle North Iowa Area Community College's Zach Welter in today's opening round, while Braxton will face off against Blake Santi of Harper (Ill.) College.

“They are identical twins and look exactly alike, but they are completely different guys,” Hicks said. “One thing they are alike in is that they are both grinders. Whether or not you beat them or they beat you, you are going to know you were in a wrestling match. They will wrestle the whole seven minutes, and they will be coming at you.”

Richards and Floyd wrestle in the two heaviest divisions and have overpowered opponents on their way to nationals, where they open with Pratt (Kan.) Community College's Taylor Baird and Muskegon (Mich.) Community College's Brett Martin, respectively.

“They win with their toughness,” Hicks said. “They don't have as much technique as the other guys, but they wrestle hard. They are grinders and will go seven minutes with you. If you aren't prepared for it, then they will beat you.”

Richards is the newest member of the Darton team, joining the Cavs in January after wrestling for Hillsborough High School in Tampa, Fla. He has put together a 5-2 record since he arrived.

“I think I have an opportunity to do really well at nationals," Richards said. “I think we can all do well if we have the right preparation on the mat and off the mat.”

Richards might be a newbie to the Cavs program, but he has fit right in with Hicks' coaching style, which has molded the team into one of the nation's biggest surprises.

“This is (Hicks') first year, so he definitely had a big challenge, and he has done really well,” Richards said. “He got here on late notice, and I think he has done the best with what he was offered. Everything seems to be working out.”

Hicks said his chemistry with the Darton program stems from being raised in the South, unlike previous coaches who came through Albany, all of whom hailed from either the Midwest or Northeast.

“The difference with me than maybe some of the previous coaches is that wrestling is a little different in the South than it is the North," said Hicks, who went to high school in Glade, Fla. “It's a different animal once you come South, and I am a southern boy. (The program's first coach Josh) Watts was from Iowa, which is wrestling country. (Last year's coach Chris) Fleeger was raised in Pennsylvania, which is the most prominent wrestling state there is. I wrestled in the South, so I think I can relate to what these guys are going through.”