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February 6, 2014

A Tiger of a tale

Marquez breaks ground for varsity athletics at Morris

Maybe you didn’t know who Jason Marquez was because, like his coach said, “he doesn’t go to Dalton High.”

The Morris Innovative senior is quickly making a name for himself in the high school wrestling postseason, though.

Marquez finished third in the 285-pound weight class last weekend at the Area 3-2A traditional tournament and became the first wrestler in the school’s brief history to advance to the postseason’s sectional round, where area medalists either become state qualifiers or have their seasons come to an end. Wrestlers must finish in the top half of the field at sectionals to advance to next week’s state traditional tournaments in Duluth.

Marquez will take part in the Class 2A West sectional on Saturday at Bremen High School, where Murray County’s sectional qualifiers will also compete. Coahulla Creek and North Murray are at Sonoraville High School for the Class 3A West sectional the same day, while Dalton, Northwest Whitfield and Southeast Whitfield will compete at the Class 4A West sectional at Fayette County High, a two-day tournament that begins today.

Wrestlers qualified for sectionals by finishing in the top four at area or placing fifth and moving on as alternate because one of the top four finishers is unable to compete.

Not only is Marquez the first wrestler to accomplish any level of varsity success for the Tigers, but he’s also Morris Innovative’s first athlete to enjoy any measure of postseason success. The accomplishment didn’t come to a surprise for Marquez, whose sights are set on placing in the top six at state — the requirement for a place on the medal stand.

His expectations for doing well this season didn’t keep him from enjoying it when he claimed his area medal, though.

“It was the most incredible feeling of my life,” Marquez said.

Marquez, who entered area as an unseeded underdog, won twice in the tournament. His only loss came to the eventual area champion.

He’s helping to put the spotlight on wrestling at Morris Innovative, which hasn’t often been the case — although that’s not surprising considering the success of many other programs in the area.

Dalton has 2012 Class 3A state champion Sidney Wheeler, who’s aiming for a second title in the 182-pound weight class. Southeast Whitfield had a state champion last season as Carlos Fraire won the Class 3A 220-pound title. Northwest Whitfield has seven wrestlers who will compete at sectionals and had the best finish of any school in Murray or Whitfield counties at area duals last month.

But it doesn’t matter whether it’s wrestling or another sport. Morris Innovative hasn’t rated high on the prestige list in athletics yet.

“I think the community as a whole, the perception of athletes in Dalton is a big deal,” Morris Innovative wrestling coach Nathan Dawson said. “I know Dalton High has their tradition. I come from a school in Tennessee where Friday nights at 8 p.m. the shops would shut down because everything revolves around football.

“We’re trying to change the outlook on our school and athletes.”

Maybe Marquez’s name appearing in the long list of area advancers came as a shock to some, but not to Dawson.

“I think some people in the community don’t know him,” Dawson said, “because he doesn’t go to Dalton High.”

Morris Innovative, part of the Dalton Public Schools system, opened in 2009. The school started varsity athletics in the 2011-2012 school year with boys soccer, and has added other varsity programs. The Tigers began wrestling as a junior varsity program last season and thus didn’t compete in the postseason.

This year Marquez was one of only two Morris Innovative wrestlers — freshman 138-pounder Jonathan Lumpkin was the other — to compete at the Area 3-2A traditional tournament, which essentially made the Tigers a varsity program for the first time.

Dawson said there’s more to like about Marquez than what people see on the mat, too. The “straight-A student” has become a de facto assistant coach, offering advice to younger wrestlers in the program. He also has enjoyed wrestling success while holding down a full-time job.

He’s also a rookie in the 285-pound division, the heaviest weight class for the GHSA.

“At the start of the season, I was trying to get to 220, which wasn’t working for me,” Marquez said. “When I started wrestling heavyweight, I had to learn to keep (opponents) from getting on top of me.”

After wrestling at 220 in JV matches last season, he has fared well as a heavyweight. After losing his first three matches, Marquez reeled off eight consecutive wins heading into the area traditional tournament. His varsity record is 10-4 entering sectionals.

“Wrestling with him is like trying to grab hold of a wall and move it,” said Dawson, a volunteer assistant coach last season for then-head coach Preston Keck. “He was used to dominating at 220. At the wrestling tournament, he wrestled someone who was 6-4 and 280 pounds. He outweighed Jason by 50 pounds. You can’t overpower someone like that. When you’re undersized, like Jason is, you have to rely more on skill. I think after three or four matches it started clicking for him.”

Dawson and Marquez both hope it keeps clicking, with the coach confident in his wrestler’s chances to advance to state. Marquez said his goal entering the year was concrete.

“I really want to reach the state meet and place at state,” Marquez said. “That’s what I set for myself when the season started.”

With those goals still within his grasp, his foot is starting to fit into the proverbial glass shoe.

Cinderella’s story could have a few chapters left.

“Me and Jason had a long conversation at the beginning of the season,” Dawson said. “I told him everything he does will be scrutinized and watched, not just by the coach but the community. ... he is laying the framework.”

“When teams have success, that’s where kids want to go. ... History has to start somewhere.”

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