Three seasons ago, South River assistant coach David Hicks told everyone he had the No. 2 heavyweight in the state on the junior varsity team.
Ka’Ron Lewis just had that much brimming potential.
“I kept saying it over and over again,” Hicks said. “I told Ka'Ron over and over again.”
With the graduation of the state champion and de facto No. 1 heavyweight at the time, South River’s Brendan Woody, Lewis latched on to that expectation of greatness.
Expectations fueled him to varsity as a junior, destining him to his first state crown that same year despite six losses and a three-seed. Expectations powered him to train harder than he ever had before his senior season, to earn his second state title outright and to brand his name into Seahawks legend.
“Making history for the first time in my school, making my school proud, my team proud, my county proud — it felt good,” Lewis said.
The Capital Gazette’s Wrestler of the Year became South River’s first-ever two-time Class 4A/3A state champion. It was his 47th victory on the year; over his two varsity seasons, Lewis amassed 84 wins to his seven losses and 51 pins. Lewis ranked first in his weight class in the 4A/3A region this season.
For the kid who was just a sophomore football player that wanted to try his hand for the wrestling for the first time, success boils down to one main ingredient.
“I think it says a lot about his work ethic,” Hicks said. “Ka'Ron separated himself from the other state champ, Woody, with just his work ethic. He worked much harder than any heavyweight I've ever seen.”
Lewis is the first to admit that he was a tad lazy in his first season. A member of the football team’s offensive and defensive units, he was big, strong, athletic — the idyllic heavyweight. But he missed wrestling practices, something he’d never dare to do as a senior.
“To say that he was going to be as good, if not better than Brendan — I can't lie and say that we thought that,” Seahawks coach John Klessinger said.
Even when Lewis won his first state crown, his style was less refined than it is now.
“I think he got away with a lot his junior year with brute strength, size and the fact that he's more athletic than most big guys,” Klessinger said. “The biggest transition between last year and this year was becoming a good wrestler. He became pretty good on top. He could turn people. He could get out on everybody.”
After Lewis landed a takedown on Mt. Hebron’s Nick Nordhausen to win the 2018 heavyweight title by decision, Lewis heard coaches mumbling about how he’d “gotten lucky.” That it was a fluke.
“I proved them wrong,” Lewis said. “I proved I deserved that title. Brought it back home.”
To do so, Lewis dove into offseason training with Blue Claw Wrestling Club, football camp and lifting, practicing with one-on-one with Hicks. Lewis soaked in the lessons of strategy, readily accepted moves on top, bottom and on his feet. He adopted the underhook series, a tactic Hicks sees bigger heavyweights use to dominate smaller, swifter opponents.
Klessinger caught Lewis training in a gym at 5:30 a.m.
“Beyond that, first one to push himself every day and he smiles a lot in the process,” Klessinger said. “He would do the things that weren't the most fun, plus he did it with a smile. People like that.”
Lewis’ stone competitive face is unflappable, but the moment the 6-foot-2 heavyweight steps off the mat, his teammates, coaches or friends that flock to watch him can crack a grin on his face in an instant. In just two years on varsity, Lewis became, outside of the coaches, the leader, the standard for other Seahawks, even those with far more experience, to model themselves after.
This year, he even adopted a shadow. He recruited freshman two-way lineman Racheil Coney to try “the hardest sport in the school,” and Coney agreed, wanting the chance to beat up on his mentor.
Coney is the same sort of big, fast wrestler, to the point where the rookie was capable in practice of dishing a few moves on the No. 1 heavyweight in the county. But it was more than that. Lewis became the big brother Coney “had dreamed of.”
Like Woody had set Lewis up for even greater success, so had Lewis for Coney.
“I'm walking in Ka'Ron's path,” Coney said. “Not to live up to his name, but surpass him. Make him proud of the person he built me to be.”
Lewis’ only loss this winter was to Christian Bryant of Eleanor Roosevelt in the South River Invitational in December. Lewis avenged it, twice: in the state duals, when he broke a 1-1 tie by putting Bryant on his back with eight seconds left, and in the state semifinals, when he bested Bryant by a 7-2 score.
To his coaches, Lewis was only able to do so because of increased mental toughness and a polished sense of strategy.
“I think Ka'Ron took a backseat to Christian first time they wrestled,” Hicks said. “I plugged it in Ka'Ron's head: you have to go after him. You have to be the aggressor. You had to control the center of the mat.”
To Lewis, though, there was another element at play.
“Every match, I wear pink headgear,” Lewis said. “I haven't lost a match in that pink headgear. The one day I did not wear my pink headgear is the day that I lost.”
His coaches bought Lewis the headgear after the regular season last year, and he donned the pink to win his first state title, as well as to beat Springbrook’s Aimrick Nya by decision twice, in the this year’s state duals and for the state crown.
Lewis’ philosophy behind the pink headgear is simple: it would be funny to lose to a guy in hot-pink headgear. In the same vein, he wore a pink flower in his hair during the senior walk at Show Place Arena.
He’d once pitched the idea that South River wear pink uniforms for breast cancer awareness.
“I gotta stick with the pink,” he said.
Two years ago, Lewis hadn’t expected his farewell to wrestling to wrench his heart as much as it did. He made the difficult decision to continue football in college, on the offensive line for Shepherd University, a few weeks ago.
“When I first started out, I was all football. But wrestling just grew on me. There's something new every time. With football, it's same things, blocks, hits, sometimes a tackle,” Lewis said.
“With wrestling, it's new moves. I'm definitely going to miss it. All the relationships I made, with different schools, out of county, in county, out of region, in region. It's definitely going to missed.”