The Flowery Branch wrestling team doesn’t have time to dwell on its heartbreaking loss in the Hall County Duals Championship on Saturday.
As far the Falcons are concerned, the 31-30 loss to Chestatee in the tournament finals is old news. With the Area 8-AAAAA Traditional tournament coming to Flowery Branch on Friday and Saturday, coach Shane Millwood has his team making a quick turnaround following last weekend’s disappointment.
“We’re in a wrestling area with quality competition, so as a coaching staff it’s our job to make them forget about it and start wrestling,” Millwood said. “We’re going to win 8-AAAAA and the way we’re going to do it is that we have to put some kids in the finals.”
For the Falcons’ seven seniors, their high school careers count on it.
The area traditional tournaments begin the road to a state title, and Area 8-AAAAA’s wrestlers have some of the state’s tougher battles ahead of them to make that journey go as far as possible. The area is considered strong by Georgia standards, and only the four best wrestlers from each weight class are allowed advancement.
Those lucky four head to Loganville a week later for Class AAAAA East Sectionals, where they must place in the top eight of their weight class among the best four wrestlers from Regions 2,3,7 and 8 to advance to the State Traditional meet in Macon the following weekend.
For those who don’t make the cut, their season is over.
“We have seven seniors, and some of their seasons are going to end,” Millwood said.
Needless to say, the next three weeks are among the most important of the season.
The Falcons look to improve on last season’s traditional achievements, when they sent five wrestlers to Gwinnett Arena in Duluth and came home with one state championship. Nick Lankford, now a freshman at Newberry College, won four matches at state to grab the Class AAAA 132-pound title.
Two of Flowery Branch’s state-qualifiers from last year are back this year for a second bid. Both seniors, the next three weeks are arguably the most crucial of their high school wrestling careers.
Ben Horton is the only current Falcon with a state-level win to his belt. He was 1-2 in last year’s Class AAAA 120-pound bracket, and is expecting to drop down to 126 this year after wrestling at 132 in the Hall County Duals last Saturday.
“As far as the latter portion of our season, we’ve kind of been hanging our hat on him,” Millwood said. “If he wrestles great, we feed off of it. He’s the constant guy that always going to go out there and perform.”
Flowery Branch’s only other current wrestler with state experience is 145-pounder Zach Winter, who went 0-2 at 126 pounds last season.
Millwood expects to see heavyweight Devante King make a bid for an area title at either 195 or 220 pounds. King wrestled at 220 Saturday and didn’t allow a single point in three matches, pinning all of his opponents.
“He’s one of those that’s showing that hard work pays off in the wrestling room,” Millwood said.
Not coincidentally, the biggest threats at area traditionals commonly compete for the teams that finished atop the Area 8-AAAAA Duals — reigning champion Flowery Branch, runner-up Loganville and third-placer Clarke Central.
But Millwood expects to see serious contenders from various schools at each weight class, making the level of competition that much higher.
“You have a bunch of teams with one kid here or there, but you just have to wrestle,” Millwood said. “Now we put it on each other.”
Gainesville, which finished seventh at the Hall County Duals on Saturday, will make its Class AAAAA traditional debut this season after previously competing in AAA. They finished seventh in the Area 8-AAAAA Duals earlier this month, going 1-2.
The new area has been a challenge for the Red Elephants, but it’s nothing they haven’t dealt with before. Before this season, they competed against Hall County teams in area tournaments, such as now-Class AAAA force Chestatee, North Hall and Oconee County.
Gainesville also formerly shared a classification with Gilmer and Heritage-Catoosa, which are considered two of the state’s top programs in any classification.
“Honestly, from what I’ve seen thus far this year, it hasn’t been that much of a jump,” Gainesville coach Nick Niesielowski said. “The AAA that we knew last year and the year before was incredibly stacked.”
Niesielowski hopes to have multiple wrestlers crack the top four of their weight classes and advance to sectionals, but the Red Elephants will have to do it without their most experienced grappler. 220-pounder Damian Grayson, the only wrestler with state-level experience, is out for the season after sustaining an ankle injury that required surgery earlier this year.
With Grayson sidelined, Gainesville’s best chances for sectionals qualification come at 132 pounds with Rodney Timmons, 145 pounds with Ben Smith, 152 pounds with Chris Kelly, 160 pounds with Chastin Newman and 285 pounds with Kash Jones.