South Carolina's Lake Lanier
In a wrestling meet earlier this season, Daniel Martinez decided to stir the pot against an opponent with a little smack talk.
Within seconds of the match’s start, Martinez, a senior and first-year wrestler in the heavyweight class for the Knights, found himself pinned to the ground for a loss.
“I was mocking him,” said Martinez, unaware of who his opponent was. “I said, ‘Take a shot, big boy,’ and he did.”
Martinez had just been handily defeated by Central Gwinnett’s Jacob Aiken-Phillips, the first winner from Georgia of the Super 32 — one of the nation’s top high school wrestling tournaments — who signed to wrestle at Cornell, the No. 1 wrestling program in the country.
“I didn’t tell (Martinez) who he was wrestling before the match,” Knights coach Richey Vickers said.
Said Martinez, “My teammates said they had a surprise for me. The surprise was he was a national champion. I was like, ‘Oh no, I never should have talked like that.’”
Martinez has quickly learned what and what not to do on a mat, and in less than one season’s time — he missed the first month-and-a-half of the season while transferring from West Hall — he has accomplished historical feats within the Johnson wrestling program.
Last weekend at the Area 8-AAA traditional meet at Chestatee, Martinez pinned West Hall’s Jimmy Lopez — the two were offseason training partners while Martinez was still at West Hall — to earn a No. 1 seed in the AAA State Sectionals, becoming the first Knight ever to qualify for a sectional.
Martinez is 24-5 heading into the meet, which runs Friday-Saturday at Locust Grove.
One of the reasons for Martinez’s sudden success is his attitude. Even though he lost to Aiken-Phillips, he still felt he had a chance to win, as was the case in other losses. After each pin, Vickers said Martinez would walk off the mat disappointed because he knew he could do better.
As time would suggest, perhaps Martinez was right.
“He’s an ambitious and aggressive wrestler who knows what he’s going after,” Vickers said. “He doesn’t take defeat well.”
The support Martinez receives from his teammates is another reason he’s just a top-eight finish at sectionals away from qualifying for the Traditional State Finals Tournament, held Feb. 17-19 at the Arena at Gwinnett Center.
The Knights wrestling program is only in its third season under Vickers, who is still in the beginning stages trying to mold the Knights, who have just two seniors including Martinez, into a contender.
As of now, they’re a work in progress, so when Johnson wrestlers were eliminated one-by-one in the area traditionals, instead of leaving early, they stayed and rallied around Martinez, the lone Knight remaining.
“We just wanted to stick around and cheer him on because Johnson doesn’t usually go far in wrestling,” said sophomore A.J. Millwood, who wrestles in the 135-pound weight class.
After Martinez won area, his teammates gathered around the podium for a group picture with him, gave him hugs and helped celebrate his accomplishment.
“The whole team wanted to get a picture with him,” Vickers said. “He was like our own superstar, and that’s what he is. The kids are seeing he was successful because he worked hard, and they’ll be willing to do the same in the future.”
Twelve Johnson wrestlers and three coaches will travel to Locust Grove to cheer on Martinez. He said his teammates have taught him a lot about wrestling and, along with their support, are the reason he has made it this deep into his only season. He said he now just wants to represent the Johnson program for as long of a run as he can make.
Millwood is hoping Martinez’s success will make a big impact on Johnson wrestling.
“He gives us hope,” Millwood said. “With him going to sectionals, hopefully that will make more people want to come out, because there aren’t many of us out here. Most do it for half the season then quit.”
As for the upcoming sectionals, Martinez said he’s been working hard this week and expects to “do well.” And it’s unlikely he’ll greet his opponents with smack talk like earlier in the season.
“I’m not going to overlook anybody,” he said. “I’m going to think about what I’m going to do and hopefully everything goes good.
“If you have too much confidence and say you’re going to beat a kid, it’s usually the other way around.”