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Wrestlers hit the mat for area meets
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Flowery Branch High wrestler Danny Bell, top, 17, brings down teammate Zach Cannon, 16, during practice Thursday. - photo by SARA GUEVARA | The Times
Area 7-AAA Dual Wrestling Championships

at West Forsyth High, Cumming

Today’s matches

4:30 p.m.

Match 2: West Hall vs. Chestatee

Match 3: Pickens vs. Gainesville

Match 4: Johnson vs. Lumpkin County

5:30 p.m.

Match 6: East Hall vs. Creekview

Match 7: Flowery Branch vs. North Hall

Match 10: Pickens/Gainesville loser vs. Johnson/Lumpkin County loser

6:30 p.m.

Match 13: Gilmer vs. West Hall/Chestatee winner

Match 14: Pickens/Gainesville winner vs. Johnson/Lumpkin County winner

Match 15: West Forsyth vs. East Hall/Creekview winner

7:30 p.m.

Match 16: White County vs. Flowery Branch/North Hall winner

Match 19: East Hall/Creekview loser vs. Match 14 loser

Match 20: Flowery Branch/North Hall loser vs. Match 13 loser

8:30 p.m.

Match 17: West Hall/Chestatee loser vs. Match 16 loser

Match 18: Match 10 winner vs. Match 14 loser

The difference between county wrestling meets and area ones are like night and day.

Sure, the competition within the county, specifically Hall County, is tough, but when it comes to competing against what most consider the toughest wrestling area in the state, the task of leaving with a championship becomes down-right difficult.

"You can finish first or second in the county and eighth in the area," Chestatee coach Carey Whitlow said. "What does that say about the difficulty of this region? This is a dang tough area."

That’s putting it lightly.

Pickens, Lumpkin County and White County all field strong wrestling programs each year. In its first year in Area 7-AAA in 2007-08, West Forsyth beat out every team but Gilmer and claimed second place in the area duals and a berth to the state duals meet.

And then there’s the Bobcats.

Since Gilmer joined Area 7-AAA in 2005-06, it has won the area dual championship every year. Combine that with what the Bobcats did in Area 4-AAA, and they have won six of the last seven area dual championships they have competed in, with a loss to Grayson in 2004 preventing them from going a perfect 7-for-7.

Today, the Bobcats have a chance to increase that win streak to three in a row and 7-of-8, when they, along with the rest of Area 7-AAA, compete in the area duals at West Forsyth High in Cumming.

And while the Bobcats enter as the top seed once again, this year they know the field has caught up with them.

"There are four teams that have a shot to win it," Bobcats coach Sam Snider said, referring to White County, West Forsyth and Lumpkin County as the other three. "We only have one senior returning from last year. It makes our job much more challenging."

Despite the challenge, Snider still feels the pressure that comes with coaching a program that has placed in the top four at the state duals meet the past four years.

"We just talk about being Gilmer," Snider said of how he helps his wrestlers deal with the pressure. "‘We’re trying to instill in our kids that it’s technique and not maturity.

"You’ve got to go in there loose, relaxed and focused."

While Snider will be relying on a young team to bring back a championship to Ellijay, the recently crowned Hall County champion Flowery Branch Falcons are hoping their young wrestlers can propel the program to the elite within the area.

"Our older wrestlers have to keep performing, and we need our younger wrestlers to step up," Falcons coach Shane Lancaster said. "We have some very solid teams that we have to go through."

Along with the five aforementioned schools, the Falcons will have to go through fellow county opponents Gainesville and East Hall in order to claim one of the two coveted spots in the state meet.

Flowery Branch has never experienced the feeling of qualifying for the state duals meet, but Snider, whose team has claimed Class AAA state titles in two of the last three years, knows all about making the trip to Macon. Still, he is aware that a return trip is not guaranteed.

"It would be weird if we didn’t qualify," Snider said. "But if that happens it’s a testimony for how good this region has become."

Another wrestling powerhouse that is adjusting to a stronger region is Jefferson. The Dragons, who have never lost an area title or state title in duals since 2002, are competing in Class AA for the first year after a decade worth of dominance in Class A.

The challenge that the Dragons now face not only comes in the form of its opponents, but in the fact that in Class AA there are only two state qualifiers from each area, as opposed to four in Class A.

"In Class A you could go in there limping and still escape with a tournament berth," Jefferson coach Doug Thurmond said. "Our area might not be quite as big, but you can only get two in."

Jefferson enters today’s Area 8-AA dual championship as the overwhelming favorite, but Thurmond and the Dragons remain humble.

"There’s nothing so uncertain as the sure thing," Thurmond said. "We feel confident in our kids’ abilities, but as far as do we feel confident that we’re going to go in there and win the whole thing? I’m not an advocate of that.

"We got to go in there fighting our lives off as if we were wrestling (perennial NCAA powerhouse) Iowa."

Jefferson’s top competition for the area title is the second-seeded Banks County, which Thurmond said is tough from top to bottom. East Jackson, North Oconee and Riverside Military — which one five straight GISA state wrestling titles from 2003-07 — could also vie for one of the two state playoff berths.

Also wrestling for a chance to reach the state tournament are the Buford Wolves in Area 6-AA and the Jackson County Panthers in Area 8-AAA.

Jackson County, which qualified for the state tournament last year with a runner-up finish in Area 8-AAAA have dropped down to Class AAA this year, but its nemesis Eastside came along too.

The Eagles prevented the Panthers from winning the Area 8-AAAA duals title the past few years, and Jackson County will have to find a way to beat Eastside if it hopes to win the Area 8-AAA championship.

The Wolves’ toughest challenges will be overtaking Westminster and Blessed Trinity, which are ranked fourth and eighth respectively in Class AA.

"It’s gonna be tough," Buford coach Gary McCroskey said. "But right now, we’re just trying to make Buford better. We’re working on ourselves right now."

But that doesn’t mean they don’t want to win.

"Oh, we want to win. We want first place," McCroskey said. "What the city of Buford and the school system and the booster club has done for this program is phenomenal. When a kid sees all the money coming into the program they want to do well and win."

McCroskey is banking on his team’s strong performance in last weekend’s Gwinnett County Championship to provide some momentum for the area meet, which begins at 9:15 a.m. Saturday at Greater Atlanta Christian in Lilburn.

"That type of tournament makes you tougher," McCroskey said. "Some people call it a blood bath, and that’s kind of what it is. You have to go after it just like we will have to go after it this weekend."

Regional events