For local wrestlers, the long hours of conditioning, training and competition will finally pay off.
Several area schools throughout Hall County and beyond will compete in area team duals tournaments this weekend for a chance to advance to an appearance in state competition.
The top two teams in each area will qualify for state, which will take place Jan. 15-17 at the Macon Centreplex.
All eyes will be on defending champion Buford, which swept the dual and traditional state titles behind four-time state champion Chip Ness and head coach Rob Carlyle, who enters his third year leading the No. 1-seeded Wolves.
Carlyle has lost Ness and two-time state champion Braden Hartley to graduation, but will look to their younger brothers for production as the Area 8-AAAA duals begin at Buford on Saturday at 10 a.m. Returning state champion Eli Hartley (120-pound weight class), and Jack Ness (145) should give No. 2-seeded North Hall the most competition.
“We have young guys who can step up this season,” said Carlyle. “They know what to do and can step up when we
need them to.”
But the Trojans have contenders at multiple different weight classes and are riding off the back of a dominant display in last month’s Hall County duals championship. North Hall had four different weight class champions en route to its second straight county title, including Michael Rietrib (113), Michael Carew (152) and Isiah Hale (195), who all went unbeaten.
“I hope they’ll have plenty of confidence,” said North Hall coach Stuart Cunningham. “There’s very little margin of difference between these teams, so we’ll have to be ready to go and wrestle our best.”
North Hall takes on third-seeded Chestatee in the War Eagles’ second match. Chestatee will rely on Hall County weight class champions Austin Donaldson (138) and Marvin Cunningham (145) to upset the two favorites to advance to state.
Jefferson will look to improve on its impressive recent history by competing in the school’s first area dual tournament in Class AAA. The Dragons (28-4) swept both the duals and traditional Class AA titles before moving up a classification in the offseason.
Jefferson and head coach Doug Thurmond are fresh off of competing at “The Clash,” a weekend invitational tournament in Rochester, Minn., where the Dragons defeated two nationally-ranked teams and placed 15th out of 32 teams across the country.
Jefferson High was the only team from Georgia invited to the tournament.
“I was really proud of the guys,” said Thurmond of his team’s effort. “Even the losses, they took a lot from them. They did well for Georgia.”
The team flew back home before crushing Gainesville, Fannin County and St. Pius X. Thurmond said the wins will give his team confidence heading into Area 8-AAA duals this Saturday at Oconee County. State champion Ben Kelly was undefeated in the 120-pound weight division in Tuesday’s match.
“We’ve got a lot of state placers and champs that have returned, and I’m proud of all of them,” Thurmond said. “It’s good when you can wrestle and come out with something good out of it.”
Meanwhile, West Hall will look to lynchpin wrestlers Elliott Raiford and Allan Jones in the Area 7-AAA duals, which start at West Hall High on Saturday at 10 a.m.
The Spartans recently wrestled in a 53-team tournament in Charleston, S.C., before returning home to lose a tough match against Jackson County. West Hall finished third at the Hall County duals, but coach Eric Radich said he doesn’t consider his team to be frontrunners or underdogs.
The Spartans take on East Hall in their first-round match.
“It’s all semantics,” Radich said. “But we have an opportunity. Our kids have been getting better each week, but we’ve got to be on form and have things go our way.”
Gainesville and Flowery Branch will kick off the 8-AAAAA area duals on Friday at Clarke Central High, with the first round starting at 5 p.m. Falcons coach Shane Millwood said this weekend will mark the first time Flowery Branch has been able to debut its entire team on the floor after early-season issues with injuries. With Hall County weight champion Ronny Link (120) leading the team, Millwood said Flowery Branch has a chance to feel confident again.
“We feel we can shake some things up,” he said. “(Link)’s been pretty unstoppable. He’s hard to beat when he’s on his offense and doesn’t allow the others to get on their defense.”
Lanier, an area newcomer, should be considered a “dark horse,” according to Millwood. He said Clarke Central tends to have strong talent in the upper classes, while Heritage has strong wrestlers in the lower classes. Meanwhile, Gainesville senior Kash Jones (220) will look to be a disruptive force.
“It’ll be the team that shows up and is the most prepared,” said Millwood. “It depends on who really shows up.”