JEFFERSON — Cole Hightower knows there isn’t any shortcut or magic formula to explain Jefferson’s success on the statewide stage in wrestling. The Dragons don’t credit their triumphs to a stock of naturally superior athletes.
Hightower, who wrestles at 285 pounds, says being part of a program that has seven consecutive state duals titles and eight straight at the traditionals is all about working harder than the competition. He estimates the Dragons spend 10 hours each week in practice (four days a week), sweating and drilling against one another to perfect their craft in Jefferson’s wrestling room, located off to the side of its basketball gym.
"We put so much work into trying to win the state championship," Hightower said. "Coach (Doug) Thurmond says we’re going to be the most fit person when we step out there on the mat."
"We work so hard all the time and don’t hold anything back," senior Patrick Allen said. "We try to wrestle every match like its our last one."
Starting today in Macon, the Area 8-AA champion Dragons have a chance, once again, to validate their hard work and win the eighth straight state title for the program in duals. They’ve won them all since the current format was adopted in 2002. Area runner-up Banks County will also be on hand as part of the field of 16 in Class AA.
In Class AAA, Jackson County earned a trip to state after earning second place in the Area 8-AAA Duals at Oconee County.
Jefferson is going to see a different set of challenges this season wrestling in Class AA. First, the field is expanded from the eight teams they normally faced at state in Class A. "That’s just one extra round, but it could be the one that beats us," Thurmond said.
Also, the Dragons (20-1 in duals) are going to see a formidable list of traditional powers. In its bracket, top-ranked Jefferson is pitted against fourth-ranked Sonoraville and fifth-ranked Toombs County. The other side of the bracket isn’t any easier with No. 2 Lovett and No. 3 Henry County, the defending Class AAA state champions.
"It’s exciting but nerve-racking at the same time entering a state meet with the streak of state titles," Thurmond added. "It can be extra pressure if you focus on it."
Jefferson’s coach prepared his program for this run at a state title in a new classification with a scheduled crafted to see how good they really are. The Dragons have faced Class AAAAA powers Parkview, Peachtree Ridge, Union Grove, Milton and North Forsyth this season. Jefferson also has a win in the Smokey Mountain Duals in Pigeon Forge, Tenn. against successful programs from five different states.
"Everything we’ve done is to try and get ready for the state duals and traditional state meet," Thurmond said. "They’re both equal in terms of importance."
Still, nothing compares with the idea of taking home a state title in a new classification this season for the Dragons.
Jefferson senior Zac Crosby said the Dragons’ win in the Chattahoochee Invitational by 40 points over Class AAAAA’s fifth-ranked Centennial on Jan. 3 helped get the team in the proper mindset for another state title run. He says that the week of the state championships is all about anticipation.
"It just sneaks up on you," Crosby said. "We really want to keep the tradition of this program going strong."
The Dragons naturally feel a sense of having a target on their backs with others looking to knock the champions off of their throne. But the seniors can push that aside, focusing more acutely on the prospects of leaving the program the same way they entered it four years ago as state champions.
"I think about winning state every day," Allen said. "It would be devastating not to win at state as hard as we’ve worked all season."
Jefferson’s wrestlers say the key to winning once they hit the mat is to start strong and not look back. Like a domino effect, the Dragons want to start with wins by pin and then just keep the momentum going.
"We need to start strong by pinning people," senior Jay Fowler said. "If we can do that it will just get the whole team pumped up."
The finals for the state duals are on Saturday at the Macon Centreplex.