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All-Area Wrestler of the Year: West Hall's Elliott Raiford
Senior wrestler used late workouts, mental edge to earn state title
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West Hall wrestler Elliott Raiford poses for a photo Thursday at West Hall High School. Raiford was selected as The Times' Wrestler of the Year. - photo by Erin O. Smith

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It isn’t a good idea to sleep on Elliott Raiford. Truth be told, it’s probably not worth sleeping at all.

Because while his opponents are resting, one of West Hall’s most decorated wrestlers is sweating it out in his makeshift basement gym in his Flowery Branch home.

At least two or three times a week, Raiford will get the itch to work out at 11 p.m., midnight or later, jump on his stationary bicycle and let the miles take him away.

“I can get focused in my basement,” he said. “I’ll ride on a bike for six, seven miles. It’s relaxing when I’m by myself. I like to do it at odd hours, knowing other people are still in bed. It gives me the mental edge that I’m doing things that others aren’t willing to do.”

As a senior, Raiford (55-1) did whatever it took to earn his title as state champion in the 160-pound weight class. His championship win over Spencer High’s Joshua Sampson this February at the Macon Centreplex in Macon marked West Hall’s second ever individual title, and its first since 1999.

But as the weeks wind down on his time as a Spartan, Raiford is keeping a singular focus on his future as an Appalachian State University signee. He’ll be joining a Mountaineers team that finished second in the Southern Conference tournament, while three wrestlers punched tickets to compete at last month’s NCAA tournament.

“He has a passion for it,” said West Hall coach Eric Radich. “You can tell he’s really enjoyed his time, and he’s been successful, but he wants to move on to another season. He just has that competitive nature.”

Raiford split his time between football, track and wrestling in eighth grade in order to keep up with older brother Dorsey, who graduated from West Hall in 2013. But as Raiford entered his freshman year, he developed an acute thirst for working out. Often, he’d leave football practice to head to wrestling practice, then go on warmup runs in the early mornings before his tournaments.

He decided to focus fully on wrestling after he earned his first state championships berth in his freshman year.

That’s around when Elliott, Dorsey and father Hugh would all start training in the Raiford’s basement.

“We made a chin-up bar out of metal piping and we got it screwed into the rafters,” said Melissa Raiford, Elliott’s mother. “If Elliott doesn’t have a piece of equipment to work on, he’ll flip wood or swing a sledgehammer.”

If Raiford isn’t beating his opponents on the mat or running on the elliptical, he’s likely to be out in his home’s 3.5 acres splitting firewood, mowing the lawn or cutting up trees. He said it keeps his mind and body sharp, when others may be hanging out around the house.

“I don’t really sit around much,” he said. “If it’s a Sunday, I get home from church, and I’m not going to sit in my room. I’ll watch wrestling videos, go to practice, always try to find something.”

Throughout Raiford’s sophomore and junior seasons, Elliott was a combined 113-7. Ever since he started wrestling full-time, Raiford has willingly put himself out against the nation’s top grapplers. He’s wrestled in several national tournaments, from last week’s Virginia Beach Nationals to the Dixie Nationals at the World Congress Center in Atlanta.

Raiford has even made two appearances at the Super 32 Challenge in Greensboro, N.C., which attracts talent from coast-to-coast.

“You leave the state, and it’s a whole different ballgame,” said Melissa. “The South is more of baseball country, but wrestling is a culture in the New England areas. Those kids wrestle year-round.”

Wherever there’s a challenge, Raiford will be there to meet it. The senior recently won a Hall County weightlifting title after Radich convinced him to join up. He squatted 365 pounds, benched 225 and cleaned 275 to take the championship in the 160-169 bracket.

Raiford’s impressive physicality allowed him to sweep his second straight Hall County title, his third area title, second sectional championship, then take down each and every opponent in Macon for his long-awaited title in senior year. He’s the first Spartan to win an individual title since heavyweight Josh Rowan (275 pounds) in 1999.

Raiford committed to JohnMark Bentley’s Appalachian State team in November, and said he’s excited to get to work with his new teammates and coaching staff.

He’ll be reunited with assistant coach Frank Hickman, who used to train Raiford at the Compound Wrestling Club in Raiford’s junior year before leaving for Boone, N.C.

“I feel like a big part of me deciding where to go was the coaches,” Raiford said. “I feel like I’ll be building a big relationship with them. They’re always willing to work with me, and I’ve got everything I need to be successful.”

Raiford said he’s sure his coaches will let him work out whenever he needs to, even if it’s in the middle of the night.

If it’ll give him an edge, Raiford’s happy to get to work.

“He’ll be in there, ready to go,” said Radich. “He’ll be there, seeking out extra work partners. It’s a general drive to succeed that others don’t have. It’s easy to say you’ll be the champ, but it’s harder to work for it.”

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