Who will find their place on the top step of the medal stand this season?
While there’s certainly no guarantee, in recent years it has been closer to a habit than not for a high school wrestling program in Murray County or Whitfield County to produce at least one champion at the state traditional tournament each season.
Last year it was Southeast Whitfield’s Carlos Fraire who won the 285-pound championship in Class 4A a year after finishing second.
What has been tougher for local teams is excelling at state duals. Although Southeast took a big step in making its first trip to the event last season, no area program has claimed a top-four finish since Dalton took second in Class 4A during the 2008-09 season.
Georgia High School Association wrestling teams began practicing in late October, and local teams will soon be on the competition mat, with some starting today with varsity or junior varsity events. However, the ultimate goal is to be ready for the postseason for duals in January and traditional (individual-based) tournaments in February.
Here’s a look at where local teams are starting the season and what they might have to get done to be ready for the postseason.
Colts coach Anthony Thomas begins his third season at Coahulla Creek, which opened in 2011, with two things he’s never had at the school — a packed wrestling room and a full lineup.
He might add a third item to the list as well — the potential for unprecedented success.
After going through past seasons with few chances of winning dual meets because the Colts couldn’t fill half the weight classes, Coahulla Creek wrestlers now have the added incentive of competing not only for their own glory but that of the team. Thomas said he had more than 40 wrestlers at a recent practice and has depth at most weight classes, which he said puts the Colts “on even footing.”
The drive to wrestle harder won’t just show up on match day, either, Thomas believes.
“I’m just really tickled I’ve got a number of kids that have to wrestle off and win the spot (in the lineup),” he said. “Any time you’ve got that, you don’t have to be the only thing that motivates them to win.”
Thomas is looking to five seniors to lead the way: Francisco Sanchez (113/120), Labron Kendrick (138/145), Joseph Long (152), Austin Coker (152/160) and Alex Hefner (170). Sanchez has known the most success among the group. He is the only area medalist in program history, having placed fourth as a sophomore and second as a junior.
“Those five seniors are all athletic and have experience and can win some matches,” Thomas said. “How well they will do depends on how much work they put in.”
The Colts open their varsity schedule a week from today at Ringgold High School’s Tri-State Classic.
The Catamounts lost no starters to graduation in the offseason. Perhaps more importantly, they also kept their leadership at the top.
Michael Keefe returns for his second season as head coach at Dalton, which had two coaches during the 2011-12 season — Charles Mitchell left halfway through the schedule, which former Cats coach Richard Garrett finished out — and the Cats no doubt welcome the stability Keefe brings.
After establishing his expectations last year, Keefe is ready to see progress.
“We had some ups and downs last year, but we fell short at the end when it really counted,” he said. “This year I expect more out of us. We’ve got a young group but they’ve got a lot of talent and they’re working hard. I think we’re going to surprise some people this year.”
It won’t be a shock to see some of the Cats on the medal stand in the postseason, though. Keefe is counting on the core group of seniors Dylan Carlile (132) and Sidney Wheeler (182) and junior Werner Braun (195), and he also sees potential for juniors Jose Garcia (132/138) and Brian Nuñez (138). Wheeler won the Class 3A state title as a sophomore, but Dalton was shut out in its bid for any state medalists last year despite Braun, Carlile and Wheeler combining for more than 140 victories during the season.
Keefe, who said he had 43 wrestlers as of last week, will spend the first half of the season adjusting his lineup in other spots, but he hopes to be ready in January.
“We’re really gunning to do well at area duals,” he said. “I’ve got a full roster and I’ve got kids who will fight and believe, so I think that’s where we really can shine.”
Dalton’s season opens Wednesday at Pickens.
Murray County started last season with no returning state qualifiers in its lineup but finished the season with a state medalist — Clay Thornbury, who finished fifth at 182 pounds in Class 2A.
Even with the participation of Thornbury in doubt for his senior year after he suffered a devastating knee injury in Murray County’s season-opening football game, the Indians have solid experience as they begin their season today with a 9 a.m. double dual at Sequoyah that includes Lithia Springs.
Murray County coach Chris Thornbury — Clay’s father is entering his 22nd season leading the program — said he has a “good little group” and hopes the Indians will have a lot more wrestling savvy in just a few weeks.
“We’ve got a pretty full schedule and we’re wrestling a whole bunch early, trying to get mat time,” coach Thornbury said.
Clay is working to recover from knee surgery and is currently walking with a cane, said coach Thornbury, who doesn’t expect his son to be able to return to action before Christmas.
“He definitely wants to come back and he’s going to do everything he can to come back,” the coach said.
In Clay’s absence, coach Thornbury has been impressed with the leadership-by-example initiative shown by senior Domingo Bautista (113), a state qualifier last season. Others who will be counted on early are juniors Austin McCall (120), Daniel Dayton (126), Wilson Reynoso (138), Tielor Johnson (145) and Annibal Raymundo (160). Freshmen Blaine Thornbury (170) — also the coach’s son — David Walden (170) and Noah Patton (285) look promising after earning league medals last year at Gladden Middle School.
North Murray coach Steve Colley hasn’t given up all hope of fielding a complete lineup, but for now his team is three weight classes shy of a fair fight.
That means those who do step on the mat have to be that much better for the Mountaineers — who would give up 18 points via forfeit unless Colley is able to recruit wrestlers to fill the slots at 106, 195 and 220 — to succeed this season.
“We’re talking that way,” said Colley, who’s entering his fourth season in charge. “There are kids that I expect to win no matter what.”
That group includes juniors Alex Gambino (113), C.J. Delgadillo (138) and sophomore Brandon Adame (285), all on The Daily Citizen’s 2012-13 All-Area Wrestling team. Gambino was fourth at 106 at last season’s Class 3A state tournament. Others with notable experience or potential are sophomores Tyler McKenzie (145), Juan Salaises (145) and Vincent Hidalgo (182), junior Ethan Center (160/170) and seniors Brett Bishop (120), Matt Pellum (126/132), Hagan Steelman (126/132), Chris Brown (145) and Tyler McKee (152).
Although the season opens Monday with a home dual against Gordon Central, Colley has tilted the balance of North Murray’s schedule more toward traditional tournaments — where a handful of individuals can make a big difference in the team standings — than duals competition.
During the traditional postseason, he’s looking for trips to state for all of his seniors and as many Mountaineers as possible.
“Just getting that first state placer last year has already made a difference this year,” Colley said. “The kids who are practicing with (Gambino) are picking up their game and having really good practices. That was a huge step in the right direction.”
The 2012-13 season was a year of growing up for the Bruins.
Their coach hopes this is the year of showing up.
“It’s time,” said Allen Tucker, who is in his 11th season at Northwest and lost just two seniors to graduation. “Last year I babied them because they were ninth- and 10th-graders. This year ain’t going to be that way. They already hate practice because I’m treating them like a veteran team.”
But the numbers haven’t overly suffered as a result of Tucker’s challenge, with some 40 wrestlers expected on the roster once football players are in the room.
“I’ve got kids that have experience,” Tucker said. “It’s just a matter of us getting in wrestling shape.”
Senior Alex Reynolds (145) is the only returning state medalist for Northwest — he took fifth at 145 in Class 4A last season — but Tucker has high expectations for others as well. That group includes sophomore Henson Gibbs (120/126) and juniors Blake Hayes (113/120), Dylan Ayers (152), Austin Taylor (160) and Jordan Pittman (170). Hayes is the only returning state qualifier for the Bruins besides Reynolds.
Tucker is also eager that Isaiah Mack (285) will be back on the mat for his senior season. Mack is a standout defensive end on the football field for Northwest who was selected The Daily Citizen’s All-Area Football Player of the Year in 2011.
With a full room and depth at some weights, Tucker sees options in his lineup — a major asset for postseason duals.
“I think we’re going to be competitive,” he said. “We’ve got good numbers.”
Northwest’s season opens Thursday with a double dual at Tennessee’s Cleveland High School, where the competition will also include Tennessee’s Signal Mountain.
Fraire isn’t the only loss the Raiders experienced in the offseason via graduation, with coach Michael Herndon needing to replace a half-dozen starters as he begins his third season in charge of the program.
However, Herndon also saw some growth in the offseason, thanks to a summer training schedule that included tournaments most weekends in June.
“There’s a lot less pressure to perform, so guys can kind of open up and try some new things and some new strategy,” Herndon said of summer competition. “And wrestling matches is the best way to get better.”
The Raiders’ lone seniors are Austin Allen (182/195), Dylan Burch (145/152) and Ismael Sandoval (132/138) — Allen was a win away from a state medal last season while Burch and Sandoval will be three-year starters — but Herndon has experience returning via sophomore Chris Rosas (106) and juniors Omar Ruiz (113) and Tanner Acosta (160). Rosas was a win short of qualifying for state last season, while Ruiz placed fifth at 106 pounds in Class 3A two years ago.
But there’s no doubt Southeast keeping up the progress that showed so well last year will depend on lots of others stepping up.
“Some of our younger guys were out there this summer and that was good,” Herndon said. “We have a lot of freshmen coming in and I think a couple of them may be able to help us out this year.”
Southeast’s season opens today with a trip to the Dacula Duals, where they’ll field both varsity and junior varsity lineups. It’s the Raiders’ first step in building experience quickly.
“This year we’re looking to stay competitive,” Herndon said, “and trying to improve from the beginning of the year until the end.”