Part Seven of a 12-Part Series: Moments That Changed Wolverine History
By Garrett Mitchell, Staff Writer
Derek Royster was going to be a basketball player. Or so he told himself and former Woodruff wrestling Coach Chad Singleton.
So certain was Royster of a career on the hardwood that he repeatedly rebuffed Singleton’s behest to join the Woodruff wrestling program. That stubbornness was met with rejection when Royster tried out for, and failed to make, the middle school basketball team in the 8th grade.
It was an eye-opening experience, yet, a portal of opportunity that would transport Royster from the court to the mat, and transform a dejected young man into one of Woodruff High School’s finest champions.
“I used to talk to Coach Singleton a good bit,” recalled Royster. “He would be around the middle school for various reasons, and he would talk to different kids about wrestling. I always told him no, no, I’m a basketball player, you know, but I decided if I didn’t make the basketball team then I would come out and wrestle. Low and behold, I didn’t make the basketball team, went out for middle school wrestling, and it was history from there.”
Royster, as it turned out, was a natural. As an 8th grade wrestler, he quickly rose through the ranks and established himself as a fast learner with an uncanny quickness and ability to react to opponents’ moves. The following year, as a freshman in high school, Royster found himself firmly established in the varsity rotation and competing for a team that, at the time, was one of the most dominant 2A programs in South Carolina.
Woodruff was less than two years removed from winning the 2A team state championship when Derek arrived as a freshman in 2002. He immediately found himself under the tutelage of Justin Haney, who was himself a state champion caliber wrestler. Haney would be the first of several title-winning practice partners for Royster over the years who he credits for helping his burgeoning career.
“I was very blessed with the timing of when I came into the program,” Royster said. “Every guy that I wrestled with in the practice room, or worked out with, they all were either state champions or state finalists. My freshman year I was fortunate enough to work out with Haney. Matt Bailey was his original partner, but Matt got hurt during football so Haney and I were practice partners. He was at a different stage in his career than me. I was a freshman, and he was a senior. He was a four-time state qualifier, and this was his last time to win it, so he wasn’t going to take it easy on me. He was going to push me because I had to push him also. It was a tough love learning experience, and he made sure I learned quickly.”
Haney’s primary lesson, said Royster, was an emphasis on hard work and preparedness for the strength and speed of the wrestlers Derek would encounter at the varsity level. Royster’s first campaign was successful, with two wins in his first duals meet of the season against Byrnes and Greer, though he would lose 13 times that year, finishing 21-13. Those defeats would make up over half of the total losses he would experience over his four-year career, and served as a launching point to the greatness that was to come.
“My sophomore year I wrestled with Nick Sugalski,” continued Royster. “He was a state champion that season as a senior so back-to-back my first two years I was wrestling state champions every single day. Later I partnered with Dustin Clevenger and he was a state finalist as well my last two years. I was up against great wrestlers every single day.”
As a sophomore, the realization that he could be an elite wrestler began to take hold as Royster’s prowess in the practice room and on the mat started to take shape. By his second season on the varsity team, Royster was earning the reputation around Spartanburg County as a competitor to be respected and feared, perhaps even before he realized it himself.
Derek strived to be a champion, and as his sophomore season came to a close, that dream was within reach in the individual state tournament.
“My sophomore year was when I realized I could potentially win a state title,” he said. “I qualified for state my freshman year but didn’t win, but late December of my sophomore year I looked at my record, and I was 21-1 and I was like, I can potentially make a run at this. Throughout the season, then the playoffs, I matched up with a kid from Chapin who was ranked number one in the state, and I was ranked number two. I beat him in a 3-2 match. That put things into perspective for me a good bit.”
Royster indeed capped his second season with his first state championship, though it was far from his last. If it was to take winning it all to convince Derek of his talent, that was ok. Coach Singleton already knew long before that.
“I think I knew he would be special during his freshman year at state when he almost beat the number one seed in the first round who I believe went on to be the state champion in his weight class that season,” said Singleton.
A bit tongue in cheek, Singleton continued, “a little better coaching and it would have probably been an upset. But I have had the honor of coaching some very good athletes and wrestlers, and Derek definitely ranks as one of the best.”
The numbers certainly back up Singleton’s assertion. After his sophomore year championship, Royster followed that up with junior and senior seasons that, to this day, are remembered for their sheer dominance. With lightning-fast shots and devastating finishes that most often resulted in the pinning of his opponent early in matches, he was a near-impenetrable force in the 145-pound weight class.
Sir Isaac Newton’s first law of motion states that an object will not change its motion unless another force acts upon it. Derek Royster, then, was a living, breathing physics lesson that opponents only learned as they were keeled onto their backs and subjected to the referee’s countdown to their inevitable pinfall defeat. It was a nightly routine that played itself out time and again as Royster wrestled his way to championships as a junior and senior as well.
Though all championships are special, it was still the first that has always stood apart for him.
“The first one, I think, is always going to be the sweetest,” said Royster. “It’s your first taste of a win on that stage. The state tournament was at Furman University, and they had the mats lined up in the middle for the different divisions so all eyes are on you. It’s a little bit different than wrestling in Woodruff. Now you have everyone watching you do your thing. The crowd makes you a little bit nervous, and you have your jitters because this is the state title match. When it was finally done, I won 5-4, and it was just the joy of having my hand raised as a champion.”
Even a champion is not infallible, however, and the highly disciplined Royster was himself not immune to running afoul of his coach’s strict regimen. Singleton recalled one of his favorite stories from Derek’s high school days in which his team captain was late-arriving for a match.
“I remember the fear in Derek’s eyes when he showed up at Chapman to weigh-in after missing the bus,” recalled Singleton. “Our guys knew that on time was late, and we were not waiting for anyone. No one was bigger than the program. So, I had to prove a point to the team when Derek was not at school to load the bus, and we left without him. I think payback was when I had moved on to Dorman to coach, and Derek came by for a holiday practice during winter break. We wrestled some after practice, and it was common for my two girls to attend practice when they were younger during the holidays. As we loaded the car to head home, one of my daughters asked, ‘Daddy, are you ok? Did Derek hurt you? You looked like you were in pain’.”
But Singleton also knew Derek as a fierce competitor, and one who despised losing. Ironically, then, it was a brief rivalry with a wrestler whom Derek would not have to face on his way to a championship three-peat that was perhaps one of his greatest personal motivators.
Brantley Hooks, who was simultaneously carving his own name as one of Spartanburg County’s best, was the 145-pound wrestler for Byrnes High School whose path with Royster crossed twice during their respective careers. Those two meetings, said Royster, stoked his competitive fire even hotter.
“Hooks and I had some good matches,” remembered Derek. “He definitely got the better of me. I was 0-2 against him, but again, when you talk about motivators, that’s the stuff that really motivates me. How can you overcome a loss? Hooks was one of those guys who was in a lane of his own, and he was always a step ahead of me. Every turn I made; he had a counter.”
Singleton, though, probably learned as much about Royster through those two grueling matches with Brantley Hooks as he did throughout Derek’s seemingly innumerable victories.
Noted Singleton, “Derek was the total package. He had all of the attributes, strength, speed, explosiveness and technique. I have coached a lot of wrestlers that had the same attributes but the things that separated Derek from others was that he was a competitor. He had grit and toughness that you can’t coach.”
Add those parts together and Royster’s career stats were extraordinary. Derek won 153 matches in his four-year career at Woodruff High, measured against a mere 23 defeats. Over his final three seasons Royster compiled a record of 132-10, and as a senior lost but one match to the aforementioned Hooks. Simply put, his dominance in 2A was unrivaled and unparalleled. Derek Royster’s office was a wrestling mat, and for him, it was simply another day’s work.
“I just hated losing,” he added. “Losing sucked. It was not fun, and I took losing personally. Once you start being successful, it just drives you and motivates you. Your goals change. Once you hit this one level it’s, what can I do now to get better. I was always trying to get better and reach that next peak on the way to the summit.”
Royster would go on to wrestle for four years in college at The Citadel where he earned the rank of team captain once again. In October of 2020, Derek was enshrined in the Woodruff High School Athletic Hall of Fame, alongside his former coach. As his list of accolades was read to the crowd, the seemingly endless list of accomplishments highlighted the life and career of a man who was so good on the mat, but by all accounts, is even better off of it.
Four region championships, three upper-state championships, three state championships, two Spartanburg County championships, 1A-2A state wrestler of the year in 2006, Woodruff High School Athlete of the Year, inclusion on the Spartanburg Herald Journal’s list of top-25 athletes of the decade from 2000-2010, and, most importantly said Singleton later…
“Derek was a great athlete for Woodruff in football and wrestling but what I am most proud of is the Godly man he has become and the life he lives daily to make others around him better.”
Not bad for a kid who only wanted to play basketball.