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State's best ready to take the mat
Flowery Branch’s Danny Bell, top, and Nick Lankford practice last week in the school’s wrestling room. Both will be taking part in the state wrestling meet starting today at the Gwinnett Arena in Duluth. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

State championships

When: Today-Saturday

Where: Gwinnett Arena, Duluth

Finals: 5 p.m. Saturday

Cost: $7 Thursday, $10 Friday and Saturday; $24 for a tournament pass

The view from above in the Gwinnett Arena this weekend would be something to see.

More than 2,000 wrestlers — not to mention the accompanying fans and coaches — will convene for the state traditionals meet today in Duluth to begin the process of crowning 70 individual state champions and five team champions at the indoor arena that seats 13,000 spectators, most of which will be filled for Saturday evening’s finals.

“It’s going to be a happening for three days to find the state champions,” said Jefferson coach Doug Thurmond, who qualified wrestlers in all 14 weight classes for the three-day event. “There’s certainly going to be a load of wrestlers out there.”

The state championships have taken their previous form of a 32-man bracket in each weight class as a result of last weekend’s state sectionals getting cancelled due to snow. The sectionals were installed last year to cut the bracket down to 16 wrestlers in each weight class and consolidate the event to just three days.

The new wrinkle to the process is elimination for the loser of first-round matches, which will whittle things down to the intended 16-man bracket. After the first round, it is a true double-elimination format all the way through the finals.

“I have always liked the 32-man bracket, so I was not opposed to going back to that method this year,” Jackson County coach Jason Powers said. “I know that this creates some tough early-round matchups and that is very unfortunate.”

“The good thing about the 32-man bracket is that more kids get to experience the state championship atmosphere,” said Flowery Branch coach Shane Lancaster, who has five wrestlers headed to state.

The top four placers from area championships across the state automatically qualified for state. The GHSA uses its own formula to establish brackets that pair a No. 1 seed against a No. 4 seed from a different area.

However, wrestlers from one region are not automatically paired with a corresponding region in every instance. According to Lancaster, one side of the bracket is going to be tougher that the other side due to the way wrestlers are divided.

Wrestlers that stay in the winners bracket need to win five matches to capture a state title. However, those with a first-round bye, like Flowery Branch’s Danny Bell (112 pounds), only have to win four times.

Bell is looking to become the Falcons’ first two-time and back-to-back state champion. Jefferson’s Cason Thurmond (103) and Jackson County’s Ryan Howe (189) are also looking to repeat as state champions.

One of wrestling’s distinguishing characteristics at this stage of the season is the mental focus involved.

Wrestlers talented enough to reach the finals may only have to wrestle a handful of times, despite being caged in the arena setting for the better part of four days (including weigh-ins, which took place Wednesday night). That makes for a lot of time sneaking away for a nap, food or studying.

“At this stage, conditioning and technique really shouldn’t be an issue,” White County coach Tim Bragg said. “It’s really about mental preparation and focus.

“The ones that are focused will finish the best.”

Aside from individual accolades, Jefferson is looking to carry away its 10th consecutive state team title. The Dragons already locked up nine duals titles in a row with a win in Macon last month.

Still, the Dragons aren’t expecting a runaway victory in Class AA. Henry County is stride for stride with Jefferson this weekend with 14 wrestlers qualified, as well as 10 No. 1 seeds. Thurmond is also looking out for Sonoraville, Dade County and Lovett.

In Class AAA, Flowery Branch is looking to surpass its best team finish in school history (11th in 2006). With five wrestlers advancing to state, Lancaster said the key is for everyone to win their first match and score points for the team. The favorites to win in AAA are Gilmer (14 to state, duals state champions) and West Forsyth (11 to state, second at state duals).

“Once you make it to state, it becomes a numbers game,” Lancaster said.

Powers is hoping for three of his wrestlers to make the finals and possibly win it all, including Howe, Izzy Carrillo-Garcia (140) and Charles Smothers (171).

The round of 32 begins at 8 a.m. today. Saturday’s finals will start at 5 p.m.

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