COVINGTON - The Eastside wrestling program surprised everyone, including possibly itself, after winning five individual championships in the Area 8-AAAA traditional tournament on Saturday at Winder-Barrow High School.
"That's the most (wrestlers) we've ever had claim area titles," Eastside coach Brandon Blakeman said. "Eight is the most we've had in the finals."
Winning area championships for the Eagles were Joel Stafford (119 pounds), Trevor Bailey (135), Jon Palmer (171), Ardest Carter (189) and Karl Williams (215).
What makes this group the possible beginning of a dynasty is that they all started wrestling as freshman. Having been through three or more area tournaments gave them the experience of what to expect, something Blakeman attributes to their success.
What also makes this group gel as a team is their diversity and respect for each other.
"Having those differences of dynamic of kids helps keep the team in a good position because we don't have too many serious kids, but they're not too goofy. You have a little bit of both, so they balance each other out," Blakeman said. "The serious kids know when to bring it. They know when to make the kids focus and the lighter-hearted kids know when to lighten the mood and put everybody back in a happy, positive state of mind."
For some of these wrestlers, it is not their first time to have had their hand raised as area champion.
Stafford won a state championship at 112 last year, and Bailey won area in 2007. This was Palmer, Carter and Williams' first time to claim 8-AAAA individual titles.
"Trevor was an area champ last year. He knew what he had to do. Then you've got Jon Palmer and Ardest Carter, first-time area champions," Blakeman said. "They're not the more boisterous people as opposed to Karl Williams who we all know and love. Karl is one of a kind."
As the Eagles send 10 wrestlers to state, Blakeman is hoping that they are going to be able to share their talents and experiences to help them be more productive.
"Joel brings experience and understanding what it takes to be that level of wrestler," Blakeman said. "If we can get more than one wrestler in the finals, he can shed some light on what he did last year to prep himself and give them an insight."
Although all the wrestlers have the heart of a champion, it was Carter that showed the heart of the team at the area championship. Carter won the 189, the first time, after a controversial call.
With less than 30 seconds left in the match and trailing 6-4, Carter was able to get out from under Jackson County's Ryan Howe.
After getting to his feet, Carter took Howe down giving him the win as they raised his hand in victory.
However, the Jackson County coaches argued that Howe still had a hold of his hand so it should have been a reversal rather than an escape and a take down.
The referee agreed and reversed his decision ending the match in a tie, sending it to overtime.
"A lot of kids would have lost it right then," Blakeman said. "Some would have walked off while some would have lost their focus because they're too worried about getting cheated. But he kept his composure. He was not going to be denied."
In overtime, Carter grabbed Howe's leg and refused to let go even as Howe tried desperately to get out of the circle. But Carter waited patiently until the right time and reeled him back into the circle and took him down for the win.
Blakeman is hoping that the rest of the team can rise to the occasion and use the area champions as inspiration in the state tournament.
"Ten is not our highest number going to state - we took 12 last year. But the 10 we're taking this year are extremely capable of making very deep runs in the tournament," Blakeman said. "They all have the opportunity to place."
Manny Fils can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What: Traditional state wrestling tournament
When: Thursday through Saturday
Where: Arena at Gwinnett Center, Duluth