North Murray High School Mountaineers

April 6, 2014

All-Area Wrestling Team and Wrestler of the Year: Winning another title was the only goal for Wheeler

When Dalton High School wrestler Sidney Wheeler won a state title for the first time two years ago as a sophomore, he admitted he became a little complacent about what it would take to replicate the feat — perhaps not noticeably so to most observers, but enough to take success for granted. Wheeler believed it a matter of course that he would win state again, and he thought the second title would simply be the middle child in a high school three-peat.

In fact, he was confident about it. Maybe a little too much.

After a disappointing end to his junior campaign, in which he failed to earn a state medal of any sort, Wheeler took nothing for granted this season. The 182-pounder worked harder than ever, had more than enough motivation and endured a series of memorable matches versus a worthy local rival who pushed him to an extra level necessary to rise above all others again on the medal stand.

And again, he stands above all others among local schools.

Just as he did two years ago, Wheeler won it all at the state traditional tournament. After earning the 182 title in Class 3A as as sophomore, he won the same weight class in 4A this year.

Adding to his accolades, he has been chosen The Daily Citizen’s All-Area Wrestler of the Year. He’s joined on the All-Area Wrestling Team by teammate Dylan Carlile (132), as well as Murray County’s Clay Thornbury (195), North Murray’s Micha Burgess (138), Northwest Whitfield’s Bryan Gembe (106), Blake Hayes (113), Timmy Peters (126), Austin Taylor (152), Dillan Darrah (160), Jordan Pittman (170), Jordan Lewis (220) and Michael Robles (285), and Southeast Whitfield’s Omar Ruiz (120), Tyler Brown (145) and Austin Allen (182). Honorees are selected by The Daily Citizen’s sports staff based on input from coaches in Murray and Whitfield counties.

Wheeler, an all-area selection for the third year in a row after earning honorable mention as a freshman, calls his first state title the better of the two because he believes winning it was a tougher challenge. Taking the top step on the medal stand in 2012 boosted his confidence. He set a goal to match 2004 Dalton graduate Kyle Harrison as the school’s only three-time state champion, and he took on an attitude — just shy of arrogance — necessary to succeed in a sport where competitors receive no help from teammates once they take the mat.

“At first, I went into (the state tournament) not knowing what the competition was like or how good I actually was,” Wheeler recalled. “I came out on top and I knew I could do it again.”

As a junior, Wheeler won a second straight Area 7-4A title and finished third at the Class 4A West sectional tournament to advance to state. But he lost in the second round there and admittedly gave up, putting little mental energy toward advancing through the consolation bracket. Even after his first loss, he still had a chance at finishing in the top six and claiming a medal. Instead, he lost his next match and went home with a 1-2 showing.

“I didn’t think anything other than first was good enough,” Wheeler said. “I thought it was going to be a walk-through. I didn’t give it my all like I did this year. The work ethic wasn’t where it needed to be.”

So he entered his senior year with a new fire. Nothing short of a state title was acceptable, and this time he would avoid being surprised early in the tournament.

“The big difference for Sidney was he knew he had to work because he knew he could lose,” Dalton coach Michael Keefe said. “In his junior year, Sidney was a returning champ and he was better than when he won state. So he was probably thinking, ‘Well, I’ll just win it again.’ When it didn’t happen, it was a wake-up call. He knew this year he had to turn it up. His workouts were much more intense and he was doing more of them. Mentally, he stayed focused. He lost focus before, thinking (winning state) would happen.”

Early in the season, he met the thorn to end all thorns in the side of eventual kings. At the Catamounts’ annual home tournament in December, the Carpet Classic, he outlasted Southeast’s Allen for the 182-pound title, winning 9-6. He beat the fellow senior again for the Area 7-4A title, 13-8, and pinned him to take the Class 4A West sectional championship.

The pair were on opposite sides of the state bracket, and if an extremely intriguing fourth showdown were to happen, it would have to be in the finals.

Sometimes the dream scenario plays out.

“I think it’s an even match,” Keefe said. “Austin is a great wrestler and had three chances to figure Sidney out. Sidney is good in certain areas and Austin was in every match to pick out, ‘OK, don’t go here because he’s good there.’ So by the time they faced at state, Austin knew Sidney pretty well.”

Wheeler pinned Jonesboro’s Chris Boggs in the first round at state, earned a 10-3 major-decision victory against South Effingham’s Patrick Mark in the second round and beat West Laurens’ Kameron Jackson 3-1 in overtime in the semifinals.

“I think he was more nervous at state this year,” Keefe said, “because he knew what was at stake — he knew he could be beat — and I think the nerves helped him out. It kind of hurt him a little but also helped him.”

Allen marched through on the other side of the bracket, winning his first three matches, and the thorn had one last chance to finally draw metaphorical blood and take the king’s crown and seat.

In their final showdown, Wheeler led 6-4 late in the third period but Allen tied it with a takedown with 10 to 15 seconds left. That sent the rivals to a sudden-victory overtime period, where the first person to score wins. Wheeler secured a single-leg takedown on Allen for the clinching two points and an 8-6 win. It was the closest of their battles and the only one of their four matches to reach overtime.

“Austin was a great wrestler,” said Wheeler, who finished the season 37-2, “but I think I was in a little bit better shape than he was and that helped me win the match.”

The way Wheeler won the match — with a takedown — was telling of his development as a wrestler. As a sophomore, Keefe said Wheeler was “an upper-body wrestler” who relied on strength. In his junior year, he developed an aggressive shot, a move in which a wrestler lunges at his opponent’s legs, wraps up and earns a two-point takedown by driving him to the mat.

“It’s gotten to the point now where he knows he can score,” Keefe said. “In his last two matches at state, he won in overtime with a takedown. That’s the advantages of being offensive-minded.”

And there are advantages of being so successful.

In Dalton’s wrestling workout room, nicknamed “The Dungeon,” one wall has the names of each Catamount who placed at state starting in the 1990s through 2008. When Wheeler walked into the room as a freshman for the first time, he wanted to find a spot. He’ll have two (once it’s updated), and both will bear the “state champion” title.

No, he didn’t win three like he wanted to, but he still did pretty well for himself.

And when talking about his entire career, the confidence resumes. He doesn’t just see it as standing above all others this season or in 2012. He believes his name is in “the top two or three” to ever wrestle at Dalton High.

His achievements on the mat certainly makes a good argument for it.

“He’s definitely up there with some of the better wrestlers we’ve had,” Keefe said. “... He’s still a baby in the sport, and that’s the scary thing. He has so much more potential than what he’s shown.”

Here’s a look at the rest of this year’s all-area lineup:

• 106 — Bryan Gembe, Northwest: A sophomore who is making his first all-area appearance, Gembe is one of eight Bruins in this year’s lineup of local standouts, and there’s a good reason there are so many Northwest honorees. From top to bottom, the Bruins had more options at each weight class than any other program in Murray and Whitfield counties this season, which translated into success. But it was up to individuals to do their jobs on the mat and Gembe took care of his responsibilities, going 55-14 — the second-most wins among local wrestlers this season — while placing fourth at the Area 7-4A traditional tournament and finishing ninth at the Class 4A West sectional to claim alternate status for state. He was also third at Ringgold’s Tri-State Classic and Dade County’s Brett Warren Invitational and placed fourth at the McCallie Invitational in Chattanooga and the Indian Classic at Dobyns-Bennett High School in Kingsport, Tenn., which both included competition from multiple states. Northwest coach Allen Tucker credited the underclassman with changing his style by becoming more aggressive and said that translated into greater confidence with each small success on the mat. With no losses to anyone from a local program this past season, he looks to have a promising 2014-15 campaign as well.

113 — Blake Hayes, Northwest: A junior, Hayes was one of three Bruins who reached the half-century mark in victories this season. He went 50-22 while placing fourth at the Area 7-4A traditional tournament as well as the Class 4A West sectional and reached the consolation quarterfinals before losing at state, one victory away from earning a place on the medal stand. He also went 4-0 to help lead the Bruins to a fifth-place finish at the Johns Creek Duals and his pin against Dalton at the Conasauga Cup helped the Bruins reclaim the trophy at the duals event featuring local wrestling programs. He also won three matches as Northwest took fourth at the Battlefield Duals in Buckhorn, Ala., and was 5-0 as Northwest finished third in the John Johnson Duals in Pisgah, N.C. In regular-season traditional tournament competition, he was first at the Tri-State Classic, fourth at the Brett Warren Invitational and sixth at the McCallie Invitational. This is Hayes’ first all-area selection after earning honorable mention last season.

• 120 — Omar Ruiz, Southeast: A junior, Ruiz pushed his career high school victory total beyond 100 by winning 50 matches for the second time in three seasons. While putting together his 51-9 showing this season, he became one of an impressive four local wrestlers to reach the state finals. He came up short of a title after also finishing as the runner-up at the Class 4A West sectional and the Area 7-4A traditional tournament, but he did claim championships at Dalton High School’s Carpet Classic and the Murray Invitational. He also went 5-0 at the River Ridge Duals and was fourth at Allatoona High School’s Parlay Invitational and Woodstock High School’s Wolverine Invitational. Already a major contributor for the Raiders — his three-year record is 132-33 — he will no doubt be looked to as even more of a leader next season as a senior. He is an all-area selection for the second time after first earning the honor as a freshman and garnering honorable mention a year ago.

126 — Timmy Peters, Northwest: The Bruins have had an unfortunate run of having a key wrestler (or two) seriously hurt before the postseason in recent years, and it was Peters who was bitten by the injury bug this time around, forcing him to miss out on the Area 7-4A traditional tournament. Had it not been for that, the junior might have been part of the 50-win club. As it was, he still went 37-19, didn’t lose to any local opponents and helped the Bruins prove themselves a successful duals team. In fact, it was Peters whose pin against Dalton clinched the Conasauga Cup title. He also went 4-0 at the Heritage-Catoosa Thanksgiving Duals, where Northwest went 4-1 to place second, and took third as an individual at the Brett Warren Invitational. This is his first appearance in the all-area lineup.

132 — Dylan Carlile, Dalton: A senior who is making his third straight all-area appearance after earning honorable mention as a freshman, Carlile is a lesson in persistence in the face of frustration. As a sophomore, he went 37-19 but suffered a broken collarbone at sectionals, ending his postseason quest. As a junior, he finished 63-8 with 49 pins, was second at area and won his sectional but didn’t fare well at state, going 1-2 there and missing out on a medal. While he didn’t win state this season (he finished third after falling in the championship quarterfinals) and along with Wheeler was one of the most reliable suppliers of points for the Cats throughout the season. Carlile finished the year with a 35-7 record, and he placed first as the Cats won both the East Hamilton Invitational in Chattanooga and their own Carpet Classic. He also took second at the Darlington Invitational, and along with Wheeler leaves a hole in the lineup the Cats won’t easily fill.

138 — Micha Burgess, North Murray: This wasn’t an easy season for the Mountaineers, who have struggled to make consistent strides forward as a program since the school opened in 2009. Their participation numbers were down overall in 2013-14, and their ability to compete in duals was extra-hampered by the fact that the wrestlers they did have were clustered at a handful of weights. It was enough of a problem that they elected to skip the Area 2-3A duals altogether. But there were some bright spots for North Murray, and Burgess, a sophomore who is making his first all-area appearance, was certainly one of them. With a 24-6 mark — his honors included a fourth-place finish at the Murray Invitational — he was the only winner for the Mountaineers in several duals and someone coach Steve Colley counted on when they took the mat. The Mountaineers will begin a new era next season as former assistant Steve Granger takes over the program, and Burgess can help provide a good foundation for the future.

145 — Tyler Brown, Southeast: Having talent throughout all four grade levels is a key for developing depth, skill and experience while remaining competitive from year to year for any high school athletic program. The Raiders’ very best wrestlers this season were spread across the classes, and Brown was the standout for Southeast’s sophomores. He went 45-15 and was unmatched at his weight class among local wrestlers, finishing fourth at the Area 7-4A tournament and eighth at the Class 4A West sectional to qualify for state. A notable regular-season highlight for Brown came at the Carpet Classic, where he won his weight class to help the Raiders to a runner-up team finish. This is his first all-area selection.

152 — Austin Taylor, Northwest: A junior, Taylor impressed by going 53-19 this season, the third-most wins among local wrestlers. But what stood out more was that he made sure some of those victories came where he needed them most — at the state tournament, where he placed fifth in his first trip to Duluth. That medal-winning performance followed a seventh-place finish at the Class 4A West sectional and a runner-up finish at the Area 7-4A traditional tournament. For Taylor, those efforts were simply the follow-up to a strong regular season. He was first at the Tri-State Classic, third at the Brett Warren Invitational, fourth at the McCallie Invitational and eighth at the Indian Classic. He also went 4-1 at the Johns Creek Duals and was 3-0 on the second day of the Area 7-4A duals as the Bruins finished third, one place shy of a trip to state duals. This is his second straight all-area selection, and if his progress continues he could be among the contenders for Wrestler of the Year next season.

160 — Dillan Darrah, Northwest: While his record of 24-24 may not be notable compared to some in the all-area lineup, the junior was the best at this weight among local wrestlers and he gave the Bruins something that successful dual teams need — versatility. He wrestled at 170 and 182 in addition to this weight (at which he finished fifth at the Area 7-4A tournament), and was always a solid option for Northwest. He gave the Bruins a key victory in the Conasauga Cup title match, was 2-1 on the second day of the Area 7-4A duals, went 4-1 at the John Johnson Duals and took second at the Brett Warren Invitational. This is his first all-area appearance.

170 — Jordan Pittman, Northwest: Yet another member of the Bruins’ impressive class of 2015, Pittman’s first all-area appearance comes on the strength of a 43-18 mark and a solid showing in the traditional postseason. In addition to his Area 7-4A championship, the junior was seventh at the Class 4A West sectional and sixth at state to earn a medal in his first trip to the big tournament. In addition, he went 2-0 on the second day of the Area 7-4A duals, won three matches at the Battlefield Duals, went 5-0 at the John Johnson Duals and took third at the Brett Warren Invitational. He didn’t drop a match to a local wrestler and should be at the forefront of the Bruins’ push for even better postseason results next season.

182 — Austin Allen, Southeast: There was no better local wrestler this season than Wheeler. But no local wrestler gave Wheeler a more formidable challenge than Allen, a senior who is in the all-area lineup for the second straight year after earning honorable mention as a sophomore. Outside of his challenges to Wheeler that came up short — he finished second to him at the Carpet Classic, Area 7-4A tournament, Class 4A West sectional tournament and Class 4A state tournament — Allen was perfect, winning 56 matches, the most victories among local wrestlers in 2013-14. Had he topped Wheeler at state, where he lost in overtime, the debate for Wrestler of the Year would have been very interesting. In addition to his postseason successes, Allen took first at the Murray Invitational, Parlay Invitational and Wolverine Invitational. And it’s not only on the mat that Allen excelled as a senior — after not playing football for two years, he returned this season and picked up all-area recognition for that sport as well.

195 — Clay Thornbury, Murray County: The senior is making his second straight appearance in the all-area lineup after garnering honorable mention both of his underclassman years. And while the state runner-up stood out for what he did on the mat — which included going 21-2, finishing second at the Murray Invitational and winning his weight class at both the Area 3-2A tournament and the Class 2A West sectional — he stood out even more for what he did to get there. Perhaps no one in the area showed more determination to compete this season than Thornbury, who suffered a devastating knee injury in Murray County’s season-opening football game in late August. After undergoing surgery, he pushed through rehab, doing everything he could to be ready for the possibility of making it back for the latter portion of his final wrestling season with the Indians. They were a better team with him in the practice room and on the competition mat, and coming up just short at state doesn’t tarnish what was an amazing run for someone who found a way to thrive when others might have simply given up.

220 — Jordan Lewis, Northwest: While the Bruins were driven by a strong junior class (which certainly bodes well for them entering 2014-15), they also had some promising underclassmen, including this freshman who spent part of the season in the junior varsity lineup before ultimately finding his way into a starting spot. Lewis finished the season at 195 — the weight at which he placed fourth at the Area 7-4A tournament and eighth at the Class 4A West sectional to qualify for state — but he also wrestled several matches at 220 while compiling a 31-25 record. Lewis was one of the Bruins’ 2-1 performers on the second day of the Area 7-4A duals, and he also won three matches at the Battlefield Duals and went 4-1 at the John Johnson Duals.

285 — Michael Robles, Northwest: One of only two freshmen in this year’s selection of standouts, Robles wasn’t intimidated by being a rookie at a weight where there are few of those. Facing older and more experienced wrestlers more often than not, he went 24-19 and finished fourth at the Area 7-4A tournament to advance to sectionals. There, he lost in overtime in the match to clinch a spot in the state tournament. Like Lewis, he started the year in junior varsity competition but found his way onto the varsity mat. Undoubtedly, his near miss at sectionals will give him extra incentive to be ready for next season and take things a step further.

Honorable mention: Coahulla Creek — Levi Kinsey (Fr., 106), Francisco Sanchez (Sr., 113), Joseph Long (Sr., 152); Dalton — Brian Nuñez (Jr., 138); Morris Innovative — Jason Marquez (Sr., 285); Murray County — Domingo Bautista (Sr., 113), Austin McCall (Jr., 120), Daniel Dayton (Jr., 126), Blaine Thornbury (Fr., 182), Seth Gilbert (Sr., 220), Noah Patton (Fr., 285); North Murray — Luis Velez (So., 120), Alex Gambino (Jr., 113); Southeast — Ismael Sandoval (Sr., 120).

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North Murray High School Mountaineers
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