By Chris Whitfield
Austin Allen is a high school wrestler, which means that over his four years at Southeast Whitfield, he has climbed a lot of the school’s steps on the back stairwell.
Take a lap down the hallway. Down the stairs. Back up the stairs. Take another lap. Down the stairs. Back up.
Take another lap.
A four-year starter for the Raiders who broke in at 152 pounds as a freshman, Allen has been taking steps up the stairs since he first got on the mat for coach Michael Herndon. Moving up in weight (he wrestled last year at 170 pounds and is currently at 182), gaining more experience and winning more and more matches, Allen has been looking up toward his goal at the top of those stairs.
“I put a lot of expectations on myself from the beginning,” said Allen, who is 28-0 with the season only a month old. “When I was in eighth grade, I set them out.”
For freshmen, the chances of winning a state title are limited unless they’re in one of the lighter weight classes, where freshmen tend to fill the brackets. So Allen didn’t put “state champion” immediately on his to-do list. He knew that it wouldn’t come that easily.
“When I was a freshman, I wanted to have a winning record, and I was 26-24,” he said. “My sophomore year, I wanted to make it to state and I did. My junior year, I was supposed to place at state, and that really ate me alive that I didn’t.”
Last season, Allen was one match away from earning a medal at the Class 4A state traditional tournament, where individual wrestlers compete in double-elimination brackets for their weight class to earn points for their team. The top six finishers in each weight class take their place on the medal stand.
He ended up losing in overtime, a step away from his goal, but he has held the loss close to his heart during the offseason. Herndon said it’s one of the few times he can remember Allen falling short of a goal.
“This is my fourth year here and he is part of that group that has been with me throughout and he has worked throughout,” Herndon said. “He has gone through summer camps and improved each year. He is always trying to improve, and we are looking for good things from him this year with a 28-0 record against some really quality opponents, too.”
One of his biggest wins came this past weekend at the Parlay Invitational at Allatoona. Seeded second heading into the two-day tournament, Allen won 2-1 in the finals against top-seeded Hayden Cook of Darlington, the Class A 170-pound champion last season.
The win was vindication that Allen’s hard work in the wrestling offseason, which included playing football for the first time, had paid off.
It also told him he had a lot more work to do.
“Right now is when your body starts breaking down, and now is the time for mental toughness,” Allen said. “I would rather lose a match now and then win a state title. I know that I am not going to breeze through the year. This past weekend proved that I still have a lot of work to do and need to push myself a little bit harder. I know that it is going to be a totally different pace at state. I really want it to be me at the end.”
Because he started his high school career at a middle weight, Allen said he felt fortunate to having a winning record going up against a steady line of upperclassmen — especially while wrestling in northwest Georgia, where the regular competition includes several state powers.
“It is nice to see that progression and see them get better,” Herndon said. “When he was younger, he was wrestling older guys, and that just made him better and made him have to work harder. Some guys get discouraged and they quit when they lose, but with others it makes them work that much harder.
“Austin is one of those guys. Some fold in, and he just keeps working harder.”
Allen said that first season was tough, but he took each of those defeats and used them to get better.
“They were just so good, and it ate me alive that I wasn’t as good as those guys,” Allen said. “It was a big difference, but I wanted to be at that level. It helped me a lot better than being at a lower weight class. I was wrestling guys who were a lot older. I didn’t take it wrong. I knew where I wanted to be.
“This year, I have set my standard to winning state. I am at my expectations, but I still have a lot of work left.”