Elliott Raiford wins almost every time he takes to the mat for the West Hall Spartans, but one of the driving forces for the senior wrestler this season has been one of the three matches he lost as a junior.
Raiford is using his 5-1 decision defeat against Chandler Pyke in the 2014 Class AAA 152-pound state championship match as fuel for his final high school season. His West Hall head coach, Eric Radich, said Raiford was in the gym within two days of that match working toward his senior year.
“I’ve definitely been training a lot harder this year,” Raiford said. “Seeing how close I was, it’s just motivation. I don’t want to have to taste that defeat again. It would feel better to stand on top of that podium. That’s what I’ve been working for all year.”
The Spartans senior added to his already decorated career with a Hall County championship at 160 pounds last Saturday in his home gym, making it his second straight season with a county title. He went 7-0 and earned Most Outstanding Wrestler honors for the upper weight classes.
With built-in rivalries and bragging rights on the line, the championship and MVP honors were particularly sweet for Raiford, who is now 26-0 this season with 23 pins. That gives him a 128-8 record since the start of his sophomore season.
“It’s a good feeling knowing that work pays off,” Raiford said.
He signed earlier this fall to continue his wrestling career at Appalachian State in Boone, N.C., next year. Raiford said the staff led by head coach JohnMark Bentley was humble and “cared about who I was.” The West Hall senior knows he will face a weather adjustment, as Boone is regularly covered in snow during the winter.
With the rare nature of wrestling scholarships, Radich said Raiford’s ability to secure one even without a state title speaks volumes.
“That’s another testament to his character and hard work,” Radich said.
Raiford’s wrestling has taken him across the country and the world, as well. This past summer, he competed with Team Georgia at the Junior National Duals in Oklahoma City.
In two previous summers, Raiford went on a Fellowship of Christian Athletes wrestling mission trip to the Ukraine. He was part of groups that hosted an international wrestling camp and a tournament.
“It was fun to connect with all the guys over there,” Raiford said. “Even if you didn’t know them personally, you had that brotherhood that comes from wrestling.”
Raiford is a tireless worker who wrestles year-round. In addition to his efforts with West Hall, he trains with coach Lee Roper at The Compound off Friendship Road in Buford.
Radich said Raiford is a great athlete who previously played football and ran track. The Spartans standout began wrestling as a seventh-grader.
Raiford was 57-3 and earned his second consecutive area championship last season. He was 45-5 and fourth at the AAA state championships as a sophomore.
“He’s gifted, but he’s an example of hard work,” Radich said. “He developed a love for the sport and applied himself.”
In addition to the senior’s strong weekend, West Hall came home in third as a team with a 5-2 mark, including a 36-33 loss to county champion North Hall and a close loss to second-place Chestatee.
Raiford said the weekend showed the Spartans what they’re capable of and where they can improve. Getting better is always his focus because he doesn’t want to take any match for granted.
“Just when you think you have something under control, it can change pretty quickly,” Raiford said.
The wrestler also has what his coach calls a “championship mindset.”
“He goes out there knowing he’s got what it takes to win and not hesitating,” Radich said. “Through some of his tough matches he’s developed the ability to overcome adversity. If he gets taken down or scored on, he’s moved past the point of letting that overly affect him.”
Raiford gets excited thinking about the possibilities of how much he could improve in the coming years at Appalachian State. But for now, he’s trying to be more of a vocal leader while chasing area and state championships to close out his high school career.
“I want to make the biggest impact I can on my team and leave something behind that guys want to work hard for,” Raiford said.