The North Hall wrestling program has enjoyed plenty of success over the past five seasons, both collectively and individually.
Two more accomplishments in the latter category have been added to that list during the 2022-23 campaign, including one last weekend when the Trojans finished third at the Region 8-4A traditional tournament, trailing only champion Chestatee and runner-up North Oconee.
In closing out his 175-pound weight class individual region title with a fall over Chestatee’s Hayden Sullens, junior Zeke Harris posted the 100th victory of his career.
The win made him the second Trojans wrestler this season to reach the century mark in career wins.
Fellow junior Connor Free, who locked down the 175-pound region title last weekend with a 6-2 decision over North Oconee’s Dom Lasher, achieved the milestone at the Hook ‘Em Classic at Lambert High School during the holiday break.
“It’s pretty cool to actually see that happen,” first-year North Hall coach Mason Patton said. “It doesn’t happen too many times. Coming up through a successful program that I was in (at Banks County), we had kids doing that. But as a coach, it’s a different feeling.
“It’s really neat and cool because it’s something that a lot of kids just think will happen, but it doesn’t for most. So having two, especially when they’re juniors, it just shows how hard they’re working and their dedication to the sport.”
For Harris, the milestone is one that he knew he had a chance to reach before the end of the season.
However, it was one he didn’t expect to have a chance to reach before the end of his junior season, much less even before the sectional and state tournaments.
“Yeah, it’s a big milestone,” said Harris, who finished as the Class 3A state 170-pound runner-up by a single point as a sophomore last year. “I’ve been working for it for a long time. I didn’t think I was going to get it until my senior year, so I’m excited I’ve gotten enough matches (through the first three seasons) to achieve it.
“I won 39 matches last year and 21 my freshman year, so I knew I’d need 40. I almost got 40 last year, so I figure that if we just kept the same pace as last year, I’d be able to get to 100.”
Meawhile, Free, who now has 113 wins for his career after his performance at the region meet last weekend, has a good chance at another in the next two weeks.
After winning the Class 3A state championship at 138 pounds last year and claiming the region title at 144 last weekend, he has a very realistic shot earning back-to-back titles as he is in good position to claim a high seed for next week’s Class 4A state meet at the Macon Centreplex, if he performs well at one of the two state sectional meets Saturday at Seckinger High in Buford.
Should he get that second title, it would mark the third straight season that North Hall had a repeat state champion, with Free following Damon Campbell, who won state titles in 2020 and 2021, and Hunter Adams, who accomplished the feat in 2021 and 2022.
“It would be pretty awesome to do that,” said Free, who took the first step toward his repeat by posting a 6-2 decision over Lasher of North Oconee to take the region title at 144 last weekend. “But I have to focus on one (match) at a time. So I’m just thinking about (the next match).
“It’s just keeping the grind up, just staying in it, staying focused or letting anything to distract me. … (Adams is) ranked second in my bracket (at sectionals). I actually wrestled him at (region) and I beat him in the finals, but it’s a new week and it’s the postseason. So anything can happen. So I’ll just try to stay focused and be prepared to wrestle and give it my all.”
While the milestones demonstrate just how strong both Free and Harris have been throughout their entire career, both have been particularly commanding on the mat during this season.
Free improved to 36-1 with his wins during the region meet en route to the 175-pound championship, while Harris currently stands at 40-2 following the run to his region title.
“They’re not just going though and winning. They’re doing it in dominant fashion,” Patton said of the duo. “Connor has pinned, I think, 28 of his (36) wins, and I think Zeke has pinned just as many as Connor, maybe a few more.”
The pair will also be a key in the team standings – along with another region champ Joey Carew (157 pounds), plus other Trojan qualifiers Matthew Lee (120), Parker Carlton (150), Kade Hawthorne (215) and Triston Bassett (285) – heading into the Class 4A, Section A meet.
With all seven qualifiers looking to secure berths in the state meet next weekend, Patton is certain that both Harris and Free will be able to set a good example for their teammates.
“Getting a region title is one thing,” Patton said. “A sectional championship, that puts you in good position for a state championship. We’re looking for both guys to have great matches and find their spots that they’re going to be stuck in and have to wrestle through them and win those tight matches.
“That should show our younger wrestlers that they can do it, too. Essentially, everybody starts off the same. Zeke and Connor, they’ve done a great job of putting themselves in spots to be successful. As they come off this sectional weekend, we’re expecting them (to) walk out as the No. 1 seeds (among) the top 16 in the state.”