By Marty Kirkland
More than one area prep wrestling coach’s preseason evaluation this year includes concerns about youth, inexperience or the need to grow up quickly — or at least by January, when postseason duals take place.
But if area wrestlers need a lesson that being young doesn’t have to mean waiting to be successful, they need look no further than the example given by The Daily Citizen’s 2011-12 All-Area Wrestler of the Year, Dalton’s Sidney Wheeler.
A sophomore last season, Wheeler made a surprising run through the postseason that ended with him on top of the podium at the state traditional tournament in Duluth, where he knocked off West Laurens senior Demetrius Green 18-12 in the Class 3A 182-pound final to become the first Catamount to win a state title since 2004. Wheeler gave a lesson in determination, too, having to fight off his back in each of his five victories at state to win the title.
But while Wheeler’s example is there for all to see, he might be more eager to deal out punishment than advice — he’s back this season as one of the local favorites for more area, sectional and state honors as the prep wrestling season begins in Northwest Georgia.
Here’s a look at what the season might hold for each area program.
Anthony Thomas didn’t have much company last season, the Colts’ first on the mat, but the coach will have a little more this year.
“We’ll have fewer holes,” Thomas said, “but we’ll still have a few holes.”
As Coahulla Creek has grown as a school in its second year, so has the wrestling program, said Thomas, who now has fuller classes to choose from at each grade. But he’ll count most on the core of wrestlers who stuck it out last season, a group that includes lone senior Tucker Sheram and juniors Alex Hefner, Labron Kendrick and Francisco Sanchez. The latter was the only wrestler to advance beyond the area tournament last season for Coahullla Creek, which is still waiting for its first state qualifier.
Hefner is expected to compete at 152 pounds and Kendrick at 145, while either Sanchez and Sheram is likely to fill the slot at 120.
“I like that core of kids,” said Thomas, whose team moves from Area 7-2A to 5-3A this season. “They’ve got a little more experience, and they know how important it is to be at practice every day and work, so I hope it pays off for them. Sometimes you see kids work hard and bust it, but they don’t get quite the success you would want for them. But so far they’re doing it the right way, showing up and working, so in a month or so we’ll see how much success they’ve had.”
Thomas has also been pleased with a freshman class that has been “eager to learn” and shown fight in live wrestling during practice. Jake Dean (120/126), Cody McKinney (160/170) and Austin Cronan (285) are among those in the group that have caught Thomas’ attention.
“This freshman class has a little more meanness in them, a little more fight,” Thomas said.
Although a couple of weight classes appear to be crowded with talent for the Colts, Thomas was expecting Friday’s wrestle-offs to start spreading the ranks out among the lineup.
“I always tell them I’m not going to tell them to lose weight or go up,” Thomas said. “But if the other kid beats you, it helps you decide that.”
Coahulla Creek will open its season Wednesday at home with the Coahulla Thanksgiving Duals, which will also include Adairsville, Armuchee, Dalton, North Murray, Northwest and Ringgold.
The Catamounts start the season with their third head coach in less than a year, but Michael Keefe hopes to bring some stability to the program after Charles Mitchell left midway through the 2011-12 schedule and Richard Garrett stepped down for health reasons in September.
Keefe, an assistant under Mitchell from 2008 to 2010, spent the past two seasons as head coach at Dade County. But he was always eager to return to Dalton and isn’t planning on going anywhere else now that he’s back.
“Dalton, to me, was by far one of the best schools I’ve ever worked at,” said Keefe, a 2005 NCAA All-American at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga. “I just wanted to get in the door however I could.”
Keefe was hired this summer as an assistant but said he knew that Garrett — who retired from a previous stint as head coach in 2004 but stepped in last season when Mitchell took an administration job at Tennessee’s Hixson High between semesters — might not coach much longer, and that he might have a chance to take over.
One thing that made Keefe glad to be back was the memory of what the Cats accomplished during the 2008-09 season, when they swept the Area 7-4A traditional and duals titles, finished fourth at the Class 4A state traditional tournament and were runners-up at the Class 4A state duals.
“I’m excited because I know what the kids at Dalton can do. I know their potential,” Keefe said. “My first year I was amazed. I saw a team that, once you convinced them they could win, the sky was the limit.”
The Cats were hit with a mass exodus after Mitchell left, but some of those wrestlers have returned this season, Keefe said, and Dalton’s practice room is full enough that he’s not worried about filling out a lineup. What he does have to contend with is a big disparity in experience.
While he can count on returning starters Dylan Carlile (126), Larry Fernandez (220) and Wheeler (182/195), Keefe knows he’ll need some others to make gains over the next few weeks to be a complete team. But he’s less concerned with perfect technique than attitude and effort, so conditioning is being emphasized to make aggressive wrestling possible early on.
“I want people to watch our matches and say, ‘Those kids at Dalton always outwrestle their competition,’” Keefe said.
The Cats, who have moved from Area 7-3A to 7-4A, open their season Wednesday at the Coahulla Thanksgiving Duals.
For most prep wrestling coaches, the first half of the season is a time to wait. Wrestlers are working toward the weight classes they’ll finish the season in, lineups are anything but set, and until teams have been tested against those in different colored singlets, it’s hard to know exactly what a team is capable of.
As Murray County’s coach since 1992, Chris Thornbury is well aware that’s how it goes.
“It’s just working a puzzle,” he said.
That doesn’t mean he has to like the process.
“I have zero patience,” Thornbury said with a laugh, “so it drives me crazy.”
With some big losses to graduation, Thornbury might be even more eager than usual to start figuring out who can fill the holes for the Indians as they replace half of their starters from last season. With a roster that is dominated by underclassmen — Murray County has 12 freshmen, 10 sophomores, three juniors and four seniors — it’s more likely than not some youngsters will have to step up for Murray County to have a good year.
Impatience aside, that actually isn’t a big concern for Thornbury.
“When I look at it, I say, ‘Well I don’t have any state qualifiers from last year coming back,’ so I initially think, ‘Boy, we’ve got our work cut out for us,’” Thornbury said. “But then you go in and watch these kids practice and work with them, and they’re great. I like our team. It will be interesting to see where we go, but I think these kids can be successful. If they’ll just battle, they’ll be OK.”
Domingo Bautista (113), Christian Torres (140), Drew Crumbley (152), Chavitta Perez (160), Kevin Chavez (170/182), Clay Thornbury (182) and Willy Amador (195) all started for the Indians last season, so they’ll be counted on to set an example of how things are done in the practice room and on the competition mat.
“If we’ve got an advantage, it’s that’s we’ve got some tough kids,” coach Thornbury said. “They’ve just got to become better wrestlers. That’s a whole lot better than having good wrestlers you’ve got to make tough.”
The Indians, who have moved from Area 7-3A to 7-2A, begin competition Tuesday with a home dual against Coosa.
North Murray’s Steven Colley begins his third season in charge with a room full of Mountaineers — he had more than 50 wrestlers practicing as of mid-week — and a revamped coaching philosophy he believes is already making a big difference for his team.
Looking for an edge and ways to improve his program this offseason, Colley reached out to legendary coach Cliff Ramos, who led Collins Hill to nine team state titles in 16 seasons before stepping away from the mat in 2010. Ramos now works at Greater Atlanta Christian in an advisory role for that school’s wrestling program, but he was willing to share some wisdom with Colley, who was eager to take it.
Ramos told Colley many things were on the right track at North Murray, but he did have a few suggestions. Colley has changed his approach to preparation, making practices shorter and more focused while largely handling conditioning and strength training outside the wrestling room. So far, the elimination of down time during practice has increased the energy when the Mountaineers are there.
“We’re way ahead of last year as far as kids working hard, and I’m not nearly as stressed,” said Colley, who said the assistance of Steve Granger and Ron Budden has made early practices smooth. “We’ll see how we do, but I think the kids are going to be fine.”
If he can maintain the team’s numbers, the volume of wrestlers at Colley’s disposal will be a major asset in January, when postseason duals arrive and the ability to shift quality athletes up and down in the lineup can make a huge difference in the coaching chess match. The Mountaineers will host the Area 5-3A duals this season, welcoming teams to their spacious gym on Jan. 4-5.
Among those likely to lead the way early on for the Mountaineers are seniors Kayla Webb (106) and Brandon Brock (138/145) and juniors Elias Lechuga (126/132) and Ethan Center (160/170), who is the only returning state qualifier for the Mountaineers. But a good crop of freshmen and some other newcomers reaped through Colley’s recruiting push in the school’s hallways mean that it won’t only be those with experience making contributions this season.
“I think we’ll be competitive,” Colley said. “We will have some growing pains, because I do have some young guys ... but I feel like we’ll be competitive everywhere we go.”
The Mountaineers open their season Wednesday at the Coahulla Thanksgiving Duals.
Northwest’s colors may be orange and blue, but for at least a while, green might be a more appropriate shade of singlet for a Bruins roster full of youngsters who have yet to be tested.
Of the 40 wrestlers in coach Allen Tucker’s practice room as of this week, 29 were underclassmen — so he’s ready to put them on the mat as soon as possible and find out who might be prepared to handle the most important matches in January and February.
“We’re going to get all the mat time we can early and hopefully come together by Christmas,” Tucker said. “We’re young and green and we’ve got a long way to go, but I like this bunch. They work hard and they’re a good bunch of kids.”
The Bruins must overcome the loss of a talented senior class that included state qualifiers Dustin Pendergrass (145), Jared Haws (170), Brian Whitmire (182) and Adam Selby (285), and having a small number of upperclassmen means there are fewer experienced hands to push younger wrestlers during practice.
But Tucker will count on the veterans he does have — like senior Sean Coley (145), who took fifth a year ago at the Area 7-4A traditional tournament — until everyone else can catch up. Senior Victor Lopez (285), who backed up Selby a year ago and took fifth in his only varsity tournament, will also be counted on to step up quickly, and juniors Braden Howard (132) and Alex Reynolds (132), plus sophomores Blake Hayes (106), Dylan Renard (126), Will Rittenhouse (170) and Jordan Pittman (170) could be major contributors.
Wrestle-offs will only be part of the process for Tucker as he starts building a postseason lineup. Events like the junior varsity tournament the Bruins are hosting today will give him another piece of the puzzle, and he’ll take more than one wrestler at most weights to varsity duals in the first half of the season. Eventually, he’ll know who can take the pressure.
“The ones that are looking good in practice and the ones that do good at the JV tournaments, you make sure you get them some varsity matches as we get closer to Christmas,” said Tucker, whose team will begin varsity competition Tuesday at Gordon Lee.
The Bruins remain in Area 7-4A, but the surroundings have changed as state powers like Cass, Heritage-Catoosa and Gilmer have moved into the league.
“We want to be competitive in our region and fight into the top four and battle those guys,” Tucker said. “This is a tough region ... but we just want to improve every week and see a kid every now and then win a match he’s not supposed to win or beat a kid that beat him earlier in the year.”
Michael Herndon is no longer a rookie head coach, and with 10 returning starters, his Raiders can’t be called inexperienced either.
And here’s one more thing to worry Southeast’s opponents — the Raiders’ second-year coach is pretty high on some of his freshmen, too.
“Both of our feeder programs do a great job of giving us good guys,” Herndon said. “... We get four or five guys every year we can rely on who will eventually be starters.”
Herndon was pleased with the Raiders’ offseason work, which included workouts twice a week and trips to four or five tournaments, meaning several wrestlers began this preseason with the experience of 25 summer matches and as many learning experiences. Those summer road trips also helped team chemistry and prepared the Raiders for their return to even more difficult practices in the fall and winter.
“We’ve been working very, very hard,” said Herndon, who was an assistant for one season before taking over at Southeast last year. “I think we’re kind of ahead of where we were at this point last year, and I think a lot of that is that I kind of have an older team.”
Just one of the Raiders’ five state qualifiers from last season graduated — returning are fifth-place medalist Omar Ruiz (113), a sophomore, plus junior Austin Allen (160/170) and seniors Lester Paucay (145) and Carlos Fraire (285/220), a state runner-up — and their lineup is packed with wrestlers Herndon believes are capable of big things. It starts with freshman Chris Rosas (106) and continues up the ladder through senior Aaron Thomas (120), senior Jesus Dominguez (126) and freshman Tyler Brown (138), among others.
With some talent bunched up at the lower weight classes, the Raiders have some work to do in spacing out their lineup, but Herndon believes the group has plenty of potential.
“I’d like to send half our guys to sectionals again,” said Herndon, whose Raiders make the move from Area 7-3A to 7-4A. “Especially in the area we’re in, with Gilmer and Heritage and now Cass, if you can get half of your lineup out of the area, that will be a good year. We’d like to add another state placer ... and we’d hopefully like to try to have a state champion. I know a lot of them are looking to be state champions. It’s a very difficult task to accomplish, but that’s their goal and our goal, and hopefully they’ll be able to do it.”
Fraire is an obvious contender for that prize after going 49-7 last season and losing 3-2 in triple overtime in the Class 3A 220-pound state final.
“He knows he has the ability,” Herndon said.
The Raiders will be the first area team to take the mat for varsity action, opening their season today at the Alexander Duals in Douglasville.