Monday May 30th, 2016 2:54AM

Bloodied but unbowed, Jefferson wrestling eying big matches ahead

By Morgan Lee Sports Editor
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JEFFERSON -- Doug Thurmond has seen just about every injury known to mankind -- he is a wrestling coach after all.

But Thurmond has never seen anything like what has befallen his team this campaign.

"It's been a roller-coaster season," Thurmond said. "We figured out this week that we haven't put our entire starting line-up out there once."

And it won't happen this week either.

The Dragons will enter the Area 4-AA traditional tournament on Friday at Greater Atlanta Christian in Norcross with 13 of their 14 starters ready for action.

"Every time we get somebody healthy, somebody else gets hurt," Thurmond said. "I've never seen anything like it. Not that I'm belly-aching. We're proud of who we have and who is wrestling for us, and it's good that we have faced all the adversity and have had to suck it up."

It's not like it has managed to derail the Dragons this season.

Despite the ailments, top-ranked Jefferson corralled its 13th straight duals title earlier in the month in Macon -- and the Dragons will be favored to notch their 14th straight traditional title, as they embark on the final two weeks of the season, which will culminate with the traditional championships at the Gwinnett Arena, Feb. 13-15.

"I just hope everybody can do what they've set out to do," Thurmond said. "We've got a lot of high hopes."

That said, Thurmond knows his grapplers better back those hopes up with performances on the mat both this weekend and in next weekend's state sectionals if they are to make them reality.

"We've got the No. 3 team from state duals (in Class AA) in our area in Social Circle, which has a really good team, and then in sectionals we'll have Toombs County, which had six state placers from a year ago and gave us all we wanted in the state duals (Jefferson defeated Toombs 47-34 in the semifinals)," Thurmond said.

And the traditionals are about far more than teams, as individuals battle for glory in each weight class -- and Thurmond says there are plenty of wrestlers out there, this weekend and next, that can derail a few Dragons.

"Everybody's got two or three real good kids that are capable of doing big things," Thurmond said.

In Jefferson's case that number is significantly higher. The Dragons return three defending state champions in Tyler Marinelli (a two-time state champ, at 138 pounds), Ben Kelly (120) and Chase Piperato (126), as well as a number of top three finishers from a year ago, including seniors Jack Dollar (145) and Zach Rhymer (170).

"They're pretty focused and they know they've got a bulls-eye on their backs," Thurmond said. "Any time one of our kids gets beat people get excited -- it's not personal; people just have a tendency to pull against the teams that have won some more than others."

Jefferson has certainly done that, in fact the Dragons' 13 straight duals titles is a feat unmatched in GHSA team history, and teams from around Class AA would love to halt Jefferson's chase for 14 straight traditional crowns.

It is a streak that Thurmond says gets harder to maintain every season, as the sport of wrestling continues to grow and improve across the state and in northeast Georgia -- as evidenced by the state duals, where area squads won titles at Class AA, Class AAA (Buford) and Class A (Commerce).

"Everywhere around the state wrestling is on its way up," Thurmond said. "More schools are picking it up as a sport, and with six classifications and the addition of the sectional tournaments it gives more wrestlers a chance to get involved and I think that's been a big part of the sport's growth."

That fact only goes to make the next three tournaments tougher than they have ever been for a team that also wrestles with history every time it steps on a state championship mat -- even if it's not at the forefront of their collective minds.

"I don't even like to talk about the streak, and we don't bring it up much -- but they hear about it from their friends and they read about it in the paper," Thurmond said. "It brings itself up. And of course they don't want the streak to be broken -- and neither do I.

"A lot of people say, well you've had your success. But these kids haven't all had it, and they want their own. These seniors want to go out on top, and the freshmen want to get their first. These tournaments are meaningful to every single one of our guys."

The drive to continue that success has proven strong indeed -- so strong that it's helped Jefferson overcome the bumps, bruises and far worse of this season.

"Tyler Marinelli was out injured at the start of the season after having knee surgery, came back and got hurt again; we've only had him essentially for one week this season," Thurmond said. "Then my son (Tanner Thurmond, 132) was out with surgery for a torn ligament in his thumb; we've had a broken ankle in practice; and we've had a herniated (vertebral) disc. We have not gone into a tournament with all of the bullets in our gun yet."

Even partially loaded, however, that gun is proving pretty deadly.
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