Two years ago when Carey Whitlow took over as coach, Chestatee had 11 wrestlers in its entire program. After the conclusion of the 8-AAA traditionals at Chestatee High on Saturday, the War Eagles will send eight qualifiers to Friday’s Class AAA North sectionals at Locust Grove High.
The War Eagles placed fourth in overall team standings with 166 points, trailing the winner, Oconee County (221), White County (215) and West Hall (181).
The War Eagles’ program, now with more than 70 wrestlers, put up the best area traditional finish in school history.
Chestatee’s J.W. Gilbert, who finished first in the 112-pound weight class, is a testament to how far the program has come in a short time. The senior picked up the sport just two years ago when Whitlow returned to the program after taking four years off to start a family of four children.
Saturday’s meet was the first-ever tournament win for Gilbert.
“I never thought I’d be a wrestler,” said Gilbert, who, along with 16 other wrestlers in his weight class, advanced to next weekend’s sectionals. “It’s all because of coach Whitlow and (the War Eagles’ staff). They shaped me into what I am today. You don’t have to be an athlete to win, you just have to have dedication, a good work ethic and great coaches, just like I had.”
Added War Eagles senior Daniel Moreno, who finished second in the 171 weight class, “I remember my freshman year we had a coach that was garbage. (Whitlow) actually cares, more than we ask. He’s a good coach and teaches us more than wrestling. He teaches us about life and puts it into wrestling and that helps us a lot and makes things that seem so hard feel like nothing.
“He pushes you further than you ever thought you could go.”
Those also placing for Chestatee were Jose Reyes (103 pounds, third place), Cody Etris (135, second), Malik Wesley (145, fourth), Taylor Wright (152, third), Dylan Brock (189, third) and Aaron Anderson (215, second).
“We actually came in here with no expectations,” said Whitlow, who coach the War Eagles from 2002-04 and returned for the ‘08-’09 season. “We just wanted to host a good tournament and try to raise money for our school and the program, and we did good. I think we’re going to have some more state placers to put on the banner in the school.
“How many? That’s up to them.”
Speaking of making long strides in a short amount of time, first-year heavyweight wrestler Daniel Martinez of Johnson became the first Knight in program history to advance to the sectionals.
The senior took first place in the 285-pound weight class.
“This means that anything is possible, and with great work, effort and courage you can do it,” Martinez said. “This makes me feel proud because I know I’m the first one (to advance to sectionals) and I’ll take my school as far as I can.”
Martinez transferred from West Hall during the school year and missed the first month of the season. Knights coach Richey Vickers said Martinez’s hard work not only got Martinez to this point in the season, but has also lifted the program’s spirits.
“He’s very aggressive and knows what he wants,” Vickers said. “This is very exciting for this team because we’ve never put anybody in the next round, but this year they all have someone to look at. We’re all going to sectionals to cheer him on so we know what we’re working for.”
Of the area schools, White County qualified the most wrestlers for sectionals with nine, tying leader Oconee County. Lumpkin County qualified eight, West Hall seven, North Hall four and Gainesville one.
In the 8-AAAA traditionals at Habersham Central, Flowery Branch finished fourth overall and six Falcons qualified for Class AAAA sectionals on Friday at Loganville.
In the 8-AA traditionals, Jefferson cruised to a team victory with 309.5 points. Jackson County (194) took second, Banks County (169) finished third and Elbert County (142.5) rounded out the top four. The Class AA sectionals are in Dublin.
The Dragons, who have won 10 consecutive traditional state titles, advanced a wrestler in every weight class with seven first place finishers, three second place finishers, three third place finishers and one fourth place finisher.