By Chris Whitfield
Who will tame the turtle?
High school wrestling’s postseason and the hunt to see who’s the best in the state aren’t far off — area duals are the first week of January and area traditional tournaments follow in early February — but today at Murray County, it’s all about local bragging rights.
With the exception of Coahulla Creek, all of the varsity programs in Murray and Whitfield counties will compete today in duals action at the Conasauga Cup, with the winner hoisting the trophy topped with a plastic turtle.
While the Colts’ absence means the Cup field will be just shy of full for the second straight year — Murray County wasn’t at last year’s event — with most of the local teams in one building, egos can be polished and upsets can take on new meaning.
“That is what we talked about this week is that this was a local time to shine,” Southeast Whitfield coach Michael Herndon said. “You want to have bragging rights. They see each other at church, in the stores, at other sporting events, and you want to walk a little taller after this one.”
Originally a four-team faceoff between Dalton, Murray County, Northwest Whitfield and Southeast when the event was started by former Murray County coach Tony Plavich — his aim was to get local teams on the same mat no matter what GHSA classification they were placed in — this year’s matches will feature the original four as well as North Murray. The Conasauga Cup was restarted by Indians coach Chris Thornbury during the 2005-06 season and has been held every season since with the exception of 2010-11, when winter weather canceled the event. Schools alternate hosting privileges.
Starting at 5 p.m. today at Kenneth Ross Gymnasium in Chatsworth, Dalton will take on Murray County in the opening round, with the winner advancing to face North Murray in the championship semifinals. Southeast and Northwest will meet in the other semifinal. The losers of the semifinal matches will meet as well to determine places for the field.
All of the teams except Southeast met earlier this year at the Coahulla Creek Thanksgiving Duals, but Northwest coach Allen Tucker believes the level of competition will be much higher than it was at those matches.
“I think everyone has improved since we wrestled at Coahulla Creek,” Tucker said. “It is all about practice and pushing up. The first month it was the fundamentals, but now they are competing in the wrestling room and pushing each other, and it just makes all of the teams stronger and stronger.”
Thornbury said this year’s competition could be one of the most balanced he has seen. When the Conasauga Cup resumed, Murray County won four of the first five titles — Northwest won the other — before Dalton claimed the turtle a year ago at Southeast without the Indians in the field.
The Cup’s date on the calendar has changed over the years, and when it’s held in December many teams are caught still forming their lineup and seasoning younger wrestlers for the schedule’s second half.
“Most of the teams around here, it is kind of a weird time,” Thornbury said. “It seems like everyone is young and it makes everyone more competitive. Southeast has a good experienced team, but everyone else is kind of the same. Anytime you compete it is a challenge, and we want to do well.”
Thornbury’s son Clay, a 182-pounder, has been the most consistent wrestler on a team which lost all of its state qualifiers from last season. Willie Amador (195), junior Domingo Bautista (113) and freshman Tielor Johnson (132) have all enjoyed success this season, and coach Thornbury is anxious to see exactly where his team is as the Christmas break approaches.
“We started out with a young team, but they have done great and we are moving in the right direction,” he said. “We just need to get more consistent. I could talk all day about that. The kids are doing well and they are just trying to do the things we are teaching them.”
Northwest will come into the competition a weight class down as the Bruins will not field a wrestler at 220. Victor Lopez is still cutting weight to get to 220 and will wrestle at 285, and Tucker said his team doesn’t have anyone to fill the open spot — although several other weight classes are overloaded for Northwest.
“We will forfeit 220, but everywhere else we are pretty set,” Tucker said. “We have so many young kids, I have five 160s and all them are all pretty good wrestlers. I wish I could just get them spread around.”
Garrett Gray has emerged at 160 and has lost only to a two-time state champion this season. Alex Reynolds has led the team without a loss at 145 and 152, and Tucker said first-year wrestler A.J. Orozco (195) is “better and better and better every time he goes out.”
“I like this team, and I think if we keep improving and keep getting mat time we will keep improving,” Tucker said. “So far they have been doing the things they have been taught, and it is looking better and better.”
Southeast is coming off of a weekend where the Raiders went 1-4 against some of the better competition in the state at the Forsyth Central Duals. Because of illness, Southeast forfeited four weight classes, but Lester Paucay (152), Austin Allen (170) and Carlos Fraire (285) all went 5-0. The Raiders are 10-9 in duals, but they have gone against some of the state’s top programs, including Jefferson, North Gwinnett, Gilmer and Ringgold.
“We have wrestled pretty tough competition this year, and they are taking their losses and learning from it and taking their wins and learning from those, too,” Herndon said. “They have been fixing their mistakes, and you want a kid who is able to fix his mistakes. We are seeing better things out of each wrestler.”
Coahulla Creek coach Anthony Thomas said a combination of tight finances and multiple injuries are what will keep the Colts from competing today, and he’s not alone in the latter department when it comes to local teams.
North Murray comes into the Cup hurting. Seven starters are out because of injuries or illness, and while Mountaineers coach Steven Colley is anxious to use the holiday break to get some wrestlers healed, he is eager to see how some of his younger wrestlers respond to the local challenge.
“Even though we have lost some starters, these kids prove they can still fight,” Colley said after his team swept Tuesday at Model. “We only have two guys on the roster right now with more than two years of varsity experience, and the rest are freshmen and sophomores. But we will still line it up and go for the Cup.”
Jeremiah Watkins (220), Alex Gambino (106), Luis Velez (113), Juan Carrillo (120), Hagan Stillman (126) and Blane Anderson (285) all went 3-0 for the Mountaineers on Tuesday.
Dalton is also dealing with injuries and/or illness, and coach Michael Keefe said the Catamounts will forfeit four weight classes. In addition, junior 182-pounder Sidney Wheeler, who won the Class 3A state title last season, suffered his first loss of this season Tuesday at Heritage-Catoosa.
Despite the setbacks, Keefe is hoping to defend the turtle.
“I don’t know what it is, but they are always excited about this Cup,” Keefe said. “They want to win the turtle, and it will be interesting to how we respond. Sidney has been wrestling well, but he has another level to go to.”