By Devin Golden
There are those expected to advance.
Then there are the surprises.
Local high school wrestling teams begin competition at their respective area traditional tournaments today, with Murray County hosting the Area 3-2A tournament, Coahulla Creek and North Murray heading to Central Carroll for the Area 2-3A tournament and Dalton, Northwest Whitfield and Southeast Whitfield at Gilmer for the Area 7-4A tournament.
In Area 3-2A, competition begins at 5:30 p.m. today and 10 a.m. Saturday, with the finals anticipated at 3:30 p.m. In Area 2-3A, competition starts at 5 p.m. today and 9 a.m. Saturday, with the finals expected at 3 p.m. In Area 7-4A, start times are 4 p.m. today and 8:30 a.m. Saturday, when the finals are slated for 4 p.m.
The top four wrestlers in each weight class will advance to next week’s sectional tournaments, where finishing in the top half of the bracket will grant them a spot in the state tournament.
At each of the area tournaments involving local teams, local wrestlers are among those who are either seeded high or expected by their coaches to do well. Yet each team is hoping for one or two eyebrow-raising performances from someone unexpected.
Murray County coach Chris Thornbury, who has led the Indians since the early 1990s and is the longest tenured among area coaches, knows the traditional postseason is good for a few strange turns of events. In addition to upsets on the mat, there could be controversial calls and wrestlers who either suffer an injury, don’t make weight or are ejected from competition.
Like other coaches, Thornbury just hopes the bracket shockers are wearing his team’s colors. He’s seen “unbeatable” wrestlers lose before and doesn’t want his team to pay attention to “hype.”
“We talk to our guys about competing,” Thornbury said, “because there are things that are going to happen in these next three weeks you never dreamed would happen. People are going to be shocked. But you can’t control those things, so you’ve got to compete and seize the day when the opportunity arises.”
One opportunity the Indians have that other teams don’t is the chance to wrestle in their own gym over the next two days. Considering Murray County’s drop down to Class 2A this year meant competing in a wrestling area stocked with several opponents they might not have seen otherwise, being at home should be welcomed.
“I hope it’s an advantage. And if it’s not an advantage, they better act like it is, after all the work my (wrestlers’) parents and my wife and my coaches and myself put in,” Thornbury joked. “It’s good for the kids. And it also forced us as a little wrestling family to branch out and work together. It’s a lot of work, but it will a good experience in the end.”
Some of the Indians would be expected to do well no matter the location, including Domingo Bautista (113 pounds) and Clay Thornbury (182), who are both seeded second. Other seeded Murray County wrestlers are Allen Roberts (285, third), Kevin Chavez (170, fourth), Wilson Reynoso (138, fifth) and Seth Gilbert (220, fifth).
Coach Thornbury said that Chavita Perez (160) and Willy Amador (195) “could also do well,” but he expects the best effort out of everyone in his lineup — he’s among the few local coaches who will fill all 14 weight classes for the traditional postseason — and he hopes team pride goes a long way, too.
“We’re like anybody else,” Thornbury said. “We’ve suffered our injuries and had to plug in guys and scrambled around. But we’ve got 14 guys that are going to compete and represent Murray County High School.”
Thornbury said Lovett and Calhoun are the likely team title contenders, with Westminster and Chattooga also boasting plenty of talent.
The Indians began this season without any wrestlers who had previously qualified for a sectional tournament, but Thornbury hopes that’s no longer true come Saturday afternoon.
“I’m proud of our kids,” he said. “We’ve got kids who have progressed during the year, and it will be interesting to see them compete when there’s something on the line.”
In Area 2-3A, Coahulla Creek and North Murray — the area’s newest programs — will try to improve their number of area medalists from previous seasons of their short histories.
Last year, in Coahulla Creek’s first season, the Colts’ Francisco Sanchez became the school’s first wrestler to reach the sectional round. Now coach Anthony Thomas hopes past injuries don’t prevent the junior from returning.
“He’s been hurt most of the year,” Thomas said. “He’s wrestled only five or six matches.”
Although injury has kept Sanchez (113) from doing much live wrestling this week in practice, he is still one of the two Colts who Thomas feels is a known contender for a top-four finish. The other is Labron Kendrick (145).
Coahulla Creek is bringing 13 wrestlers, one shy of filling each class, and Thomas hopes a third Colt makes a run. The progress shown by Austin Voyles (132) and Tucker Sheram (126) — the team’s lone senior — makes them possibilities.
“I’d like to say we’d have a surprise out of somebody, but it’d be a surprise,” he said. “That’s why you go to wrestle, to see.”
For North Murray, this season has been filled with injuries. But the Mountaineers could advance a handful of wrestlers, with one a returning state competitor.
Ethan Center (160) finished third in Area 7-2A last year and reached the Class 2A state tournament, but North Murray coach Steve Colley sees potential in others, too.
“We’re healthier. We’re just low in numbers,” he said. “I’m only going to take eight or nine kids. The guys I have are healthy. We had such a rough run there, and a lot of them are just getting back.”
Colley’s goal is to have five Mountaineers advance to sectionals. Alex Gambino (106), Carlos Carrillo (113), Elias Lechuga (132) and Al Fraire (220) are the others. Brandon Adame (285) has the flu and could be a scratch, Colley said.
In Area 7-4A, 2012 state champion Sidney Wheeler, who made his own surprising run in last year’s postseason, headlines Dalton’s seven wrestlers slated to compete.
Catamounts coach Michael Keefe said three wrestlers — Wheeler (182), Dylan Carlile (120) and Werner Braun (195) — are seeded in the top four, but “any” of the seven could be wrestling next weekend. Carlile finished third in Area 7-3A last season and advanced to sectionals, but he was unable to complete the tournament because of injury.
“I’ve seen a lot of our kids do that before,” Keefe said of surprising runs. “We’ve had a kid who wasn’t supposed to make it out, and they end up winning the (area).”
The other four Cats competing are Brian Nunez (126), Jose Garcia (132), Ivan Rivera (138) and Hector Soto (220).
“I expect every one of them to place in the top four,” Keefe said. “The biggest thing is getting out of (area). Winning it isn’t as big as just making it out. There are some guys they’ve wrestled two or three times and lost to, and I expect them to go out there and pull off the upset.”
They could make long journeys through the wrestlebacks, which is the win-or-go-home scenario some must endure.
“We’ve been working a lot on the mental part,” Keefe said. “We’re working on getting rid of doubt and getting rid of fear. We want them to think they’re going to succeed in this situation.”
Northwest is taking 12 wrestlers to the tournament, and coach Allen Tucker believes the group includes five or six potential advancers.
He hopes injuries don’t hold the Bruins back.
“To be honest, we are so beat up right now,” Tucker said.
Blake Hayes (106), Braden Howard (132), Alex Reynolds (145), Dalton Ayers (152), A.J. Orozco (182) and Victor Lopez (220) are the notables, with the other six competitors either freshmen replacements for injured Bruins, or sophomores. Just recently, Henson Gibbs (113) separated his shoulder, and Sean Coley (138) broke his arm.
Yet for those underclassmen, there could be reason to cheer. Last season the biggest shocker for the Bruins was No. 6 seed Jared Haws advancing to sectionals.
“Always,” Tucker said about the potential for favorable upsets. “You’ve got those four or five you feel pretty good about. Then you have those one or two who come out and surprise you.”
Reynolds was on the opposite end last season. He finished fifth in the area tournament, one spot shy of going to sectionals.
“He’s done a great job for us this year. He hasn’t had but four losses, and two were out-of-state losses,” Tucker said. “(Ayers is) on the bubble. He’s a No. 4 or 5 (seed). If he beats a kid that beat him, then he’s a No. 2 or 3.”
Southeast advanced to the state duals this year for the first time in program history. The Raiders were the only local team to advance beyond area for duals, and they join Murray County as the only team expected to fill each weight class for the traditional postseason.
Raiders coach Michael Herndon would love to have 14 wrestlers at sectionals, too.
“Every coach wants all 14, but realistically we want anywhere from four to eight,” he said. “It’s kind of hard to tell with how difficult our (area) is.”
Carlos Fraire (220), the 2012 Class 3A state runner-up, leads a group that didn’t have any area champs last year but qualified six for sectionals. Omar Ruiz (113), Lester Paucay (152) and Austin Allen (170) are the others who made it to state and return for a followup performance.
Other Raiders could make a run as well.
“We’ve got a couple of seniors. Jesus Dominguez (120) finished fifth (in area) last year in the 126-pound class. His ultimate goal is to place in the area tournament and make state,” Herndon said. “Aaron Thomas (126) is a senior and finished sixth in 132.”
Herndon also mentioned Chris Rosas (106) as a freshman not on many radars. Herndon is hoping Dominguez and Thomas’ wrestling careers continue beyond this weekend and that Rosas’ finally blossoms.
“There’s examples where kids have gone from not even going to the state tournament to winning it the next year,” he said. “Going from not even winning the area to finishing second or third in state.
“It’s high school wrestling, and emotions can run high.”
— Sports Editor Marty Kirkland contributed to this story.