MACON — As the annual State Duals wrestling tournament prepares to open Thursday at the Macon Coliseum, seven northeast Georgia area teams in five classifications will make the trek looking for state titles.
The group includes state powerhouses Jefferson, which has won 18 consecutive Duals titles spanning four classifications, Commerce, winner of six straight Class A titles, North Hall, which captured the 2018 Class 3A crown and was runner-up in 2019, Buford, the 2017 and 2018 Class 5A champion, and Jackson County a perennial top four team that finished as state runner-up in 2016.
Two teams, however, will be making the journey for the first time in years. Flowery Branch, which has seen lean times since its last State Duals appearance in 2014, advanced out of Region 7-4A. Gainesville, which last got to Macon in 2017, had a strong showing in the Region 8-6A Duals for new coach Roberto Rivera.
The three-day tournament will get under way on Thursday with the opening two rounds. The semifinals and consolation brackets will highlight Friday’s action with the finals set for Saturday.
The Falcons, now in their fourth season under John Waters, held off Chestatee in a true-second battle to qualify. Waters said it was the last step in what he felt has been a slow steady rise.
“We were at the bottom of the barrel when I got here,” Waters said. “But we’ve been making progress and finally getting over the hump is huge for us. This was a major team goal for us.
“Now we’re going to get some of that needed experience you need at this level. Believing and knowing you can win is a key in all sports and I think we’re getting there.”
Senior Colton Murphy (126-pounds) and juniors Aidan Fincher (106) and Jarrett Greene (120) have been leading the charge for Flowery Branch. The Falcons, however, will open the tournament against No. 2 seed Gilmer, which was the Class 4A state runner-up in 2019 and has claimed seven state titles since 2008.
“We know we have our work cut out for us,” Waters said. “Our goal is to go in and just lay it all out there. This is what we’ve been building toward so we’re going to prepare for a tough road.”
For the Red Elephants, Rivera described a similar path as the Falcons. He took over a program that struggled to win a team match in the Hall County Championship the last few seasons to escaping a tough 8-6A field in his first venture at the helm.
“Just trying to instill a winning mentality,” Rivera said. “But I also think the unknown of what we had helped us in the Region Duals. Some of the teams seemed surprised at what we were doing.
“We only have one guy on the roster that was on that 2017 team (132-pound senior Leandro Chavez) so we didn’t have anybody that really knew how to have success. We’ve had some good showings this year and now with the Region (Duals) I think they are starting to believe they can have success.”
Junior Ignacio Olvero (285) and sophomore Kendice Cavazos (145) are helping to turn things around for the Red Elephants. Now comes the next step.
“We’re not where we want or expect to be as a program but the kids are making progress,” Rivera said. “We’re going down there to get the experience of it all and I’m hoping that will help drive them to want to get back next year. (Class) 6A is a tough field. A top eight finish is our goal and would be a great step forward.”
While the Falcons and Red Elephants will be looking to soak in the atmosphere, Class 3A area powers North Hall and Jefferson will be looking to try to get back to the finals after last year’s classic finals showdown. The Dragons nipped the Trojans 30-29 by winning the final match to extended their ridiculous titles streak to 18 straight.
The Dragons are under new management with former Jefferson standout Kyle Baird taking over for the legendary Doug Thurmond. But don’t expect things to change.
They come in as the No. 1 overall seed after winning the Area 5-A Duals. Juniors Tyson Thurmond (120) and Dawson Lee (145 or 152) and sophomore Grant Hamilton (145 or 152) have led the way, Baird said.
“The transition has been pretty smooth,” Baird said. “But we’re a pretty young team. We lost seven guys off last year’s team and we’re a little inexperienced compared to say North Hall and Sonoraville.
“We’ve been kind of the underdog in some tournaments and we’re taking that same role this weekend. Every match is going to be tough so we’re just worried about our first one, whoever that is.”
Jefferson received a first round bye and will take on the Stone Mountain-Islands winner in the quarterfinals.
For North Hall, the Trojans are surely looking to avenge that heartbreaking loss in the finals, where they only needed to win one of the final five matches to repeat their 2018 title run. Coach David Nichols, however, said the Dragons are not on their radar, yet.
“We’re not thinking about them. We’re only focused on who our first opponent will be,” Nichols said. “It’s a tough field so you can’t be looking down the road at all.”
The second-seeded Trojans, led by juniors Jacob Pedraza (120) and Jackson Whitmire (132), also received a first round bye and will await the Benedictine-Pike County winner in the quarterfinals.
As for the other northeast Georgia teams headed to Macon, Commerce is the No. 1 overall seed in Class A and received a first round bye. The Tigers will take on the Irwin County-Eagles Landing Christian Academy winner in the quarterfinals.
Buford in Class 5A is the No. 3 seed behind defending champion Woodland-Cartersville and Veterans. They will open against Decatur in the first round.
Jackson County, which took fourth in 2019, comes in as the No. 3 seed in Class 3A. The Panthers also received a first round bye and will take on the Adairsville-Pierce County winner in the quarterfinals.
North Hall and Jackson County could meet in the semifinals.