Last season Flowery Branch emerged from a three-way tie to win the Hall County wrestling championships, beating North Hall and Chestatee on a tiebreaker.
The Falcons went on to have an individual state champion, and the War Eagles and Trojans both reached the state duals tournament in Macon.
Wrestling is looking up in Hall County, as the coaches try to move toward what their neighboring county, Jackson, has already become.
“For several years there may have been one team that has completely dominated the county, now we have several teams that actually have a good program, and that’s kind of exciting,” Chestatee coach Carey Whitlow said. “Several years ago, somebody said that you can’t build a high school wrestling program in Hall County, so we did.
“Now Johnson has more wrestlers than they’ve had, they’re doing what we did with building a youth program, and we did what Jefferson did,” he added. “(Jefferson coach) Doug Thurmond did everything right years ago, he followed the program. Now their whole Jefferson program has created a whole persona as a wrestler, and created a whole community around the sport.”
That community of support has paid off very well for the Dragons, who have won 12 consecutive Class AA traditional state championships and every state duals championship.
What it all comes down to, and what the top Hall County schools have done to follow suit, is having a foundation of wrestling support and excitement in the area.
In Hall County, Whitlow said that his wrestling team has been improving over the years in spite of a number of issues and lack of support.
At Jefferson, wrestling takes a back seat to no other sport.
“It used to be, wrestling was seen as a secondary sport, and a football coach might coach in the offseason to give his players something to do,” Thurmond said. “But, what has a whole lot to do with our success, is that we don’t treat it as a secondary sport, we love it.
“And Hall County has coaches that love it, and as long as they get support, it’s definitely going to grow.”
In Jackson County, the sport has been growing ever since Thurmond was wrestling for the Dragons under the legendary coach Jack Keene.
“He did a great job,” Thurmond said. “He laid the groundwork.”
Keene coached from the late 1960s to 2000, when his then assistant, Thurmond, took over. His teams won a few state titles in the 80s and a final one in 1995, putting Jefferson on the map as a wrestling school.
And while he was at Jefferson, coaches from the north, where the sport had a much bigger following, came south to expand and improve the game.
There was wrestling Hall of Fame member Dr. John Raber, from Pennsylvania, who set up camps to teach local youths in North Georgia the new wrestling techniques from up north, and his sons who dominated at Lumpkin County, Thurmond remembered. The Dragons coach said he attended many of those camps as a youth.
Thurmond also mentioned the late Walt Hennebaul Jr., also from Pennsylvania, who coached at Parkview and was a longtime promoter of youth wrestling, and whose sons also dominated in the state and stayed in the wrestling community.
It was those experiences in that environment which shaped Thurmond, who said the smartest thing he did was start a USA youth wrestling program in the mid 90s while coaching under Keene.
It started with him and a couple of other dads and their sons, and its expanded ever since.
“It’s a good thing that they start early and get to know the sport, and most of all have fun and enjoy themselves,” Thurmond said. “Then we started to have more kids coming in the program who knew the new wrestling program. Have them already knowing the basics, that kind of makes it nice, and we’ve been able to teach more advanced techniques.”
With that in place, the Dragons have turned into a wrestling dynasty in the state, and have now been traveling the country to wrestle in premier national tournaments to give the wrestlers more exposure to the best. Jefferson finished ninth out of 32 teams at a tournament in Minnesota last year involving many of the nation’s top squads, and the Dragons have scheduled a return trip this year.
The squad will be loaded again, and includes state runners-up from last season in Chase Piperato, Kyle Kashuba, Jack Dollar and Aaron Anderson, and defending state champ Tyler Marinelli.
The Jefferson wrestling culture has also made roots all over the area, including across the county at rival Commerce, whose coach, Kendall Love, had coached under Thurmond prior to taking over the Tigers.
Commerce has been a constant in the Class A tournament recently, and finished fourth in the state duals tournament last season.
“He’s just now getting young kids in,” Thurmond said. “And I think in the next few years they’re definitely going to make a mark.”
Many of the Hall County programs are working on making that mark as well. Chestatee has even put together unique solutions to the problem of building support, by holding a Meet the Wrestler Night, where wrestlers show parents and fans how the sport is scored.
“It’s getting people involved, “Whitlow said. “As they get more educated, they can enjoy the matches.”
A number of Hall County teams should have enjoyable matches this season. East Hall (JD Holloway), North Hall (Tyler Kratzer) and Riverside Military (Christopher Harvey) all have at least one of last season’s All-Area first or second team selections returning, along with area teams Lumpkin County (Greg Hilliard), White County (Andrew Posten), Buford (Chip Ness), Commerce (Trent Reddish and Chance McClure) and Jackson County (Conner Andreasen and Daivon Ledford).
Chestatee returns two of its top wrestlers in Jose Reyes-Lavallee and Bart Velasquez and looks to do well in a new Class AAAA area.
“We’re looking to be pretty tough, and we’re going for it, we’ll go ahead and put that target on our back, we’re going for it,” Whitlow said. “With the new region realignment, we think we could win area duals and area traditional tournaments. And we want to be top-five at state, and if we don’t hit those goals we’re doing something wrong.”